What is left to those after the storm

A review of Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Book geeks like me always look forward to the National Book Awards, and this year provided a little more drama due to a hazy phone connection and some hurried backtracking in the young adult category (happily settled, thankfully). The other surprise of the evening came in the fiction category.  Often viewed as an award to honor more critically acclaimed but lesser known authors, this year’s winner Salvage the Bones edged out the better known The Tiger’s Wife (read Molly’s review here).   

Author Jesmyn Ward’s second book, Salvage centers on the days leading up to Katrina’s landfall in Bois Sauvage. The hurricane doesn’t make its appearance until late in the book, but it’s of no matter; life in the Pit is raw and precarious even before Katrina’s entrance. Esch has lived her entire life in the Pit, taking care of her brothers and father after her mother died and making do as best she can in the grinding poverty of the Gulf Coast. Her family clings to what they have: brother Randall hopes to be scouted for a college basketball team, Daddy has his liquor and his grief, and Skeetah has China, the beautiful and dangerous pit bull whose puppies could be the means to making some of those dreams happen. As China labors, Esch realizes that she too is going to be a mother. The only girl among men who are unaware, unable or too uncaring to help her, she rereads the myth of Medea and drifts through the brutality that surrounds her. Ward doesn’t shy from depicting the harsh realities of life in Bois Sauvage: the dogs’ ferocity in the pit hardly surpasses the anger and longing Esch feels towards her child and its father, all the more so for how she holds it all inside. When the hurricane comes, it is a catharsis. 

I have read a few reviews of Salvage and most describe the book as bleak.  I disagree. Esch’s situation is dire to be sure, and the devastation Katrina inflicts on the coast is unimaginable. But Ward’s writing is that sort that comes in the best fiction: luminous writing with well-drawn, dignified characters. Ward lives on the Gulf Coast and had a harrowing time surviving Katrina. Her experiences and careful crafting make Salvage the Bones a masterful portrayal of family in crisis.