Salvage the Bones is the type of book that can get lost. It’s not an extremely large novel, clocking in at just over 260 pages. It was not written by a well known author. Jesmyn Ward, of DeLisle, Mississippi, published one novel prior to this one, Where the Line Bleeds, released by Agate Bolden in 2008. Her last name also begins with a W, which may not mean much to most, but in a bookstore, it means she’s often filed away on the bottom shelf, out of the eyesight of the average shelf viewer.
What all of this means is it takes something a little bit extra to find Salvage the Bones. Someone must take a chance on a new author, on a mostly unheard of work. Then, that person must read it and immediately treasure it, because it is impossible not to treasure this forceful work of fiction. Finally, that person must make a decision: share the treasure, screaming to the rooftops about the discovery that’s been made or bury it, keeping the treasure and all its contents, savoring each piece.
By naming Salvage the Bones the 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, the National Book Foundation shared this treasure of a book with the world.
The book tells the story of a family; a father; fifteen year old, pregnant Esch; Randall, the star basketball player; Junior, the youngest member of the family whose mother died during his birth; Skeetah and his prized pit bull China; and China’s new puppies.
It is the summer of 2005, and this family lives on the Mississippi coast. A storm is heading their way — Katrina.
The novel is broken into twelve chapters, each chronicling a day leading up to the storm, the day Katrina hits and finally the day after.
I lived in Jackson, MS when Katrina hit. Although we lost power, had wind damage, etc. we were hours from the coast. My family on the coast and others like them, lost their homes, their livelihood, their belongings, in some cases their lives.
At the beginning of the novel, it’s apparent that Ward is writing about an approaching hurricane, but when the word “Katrina” hits the page, as a native Mississippian, it is impossible to not be overwhelmed by dread at the thought of what must await this family.
What is remarkable, however, is that despite this overwhelming dread, Ward’s writing is so powerful, so poetic, that the reader is still able to become completely enveloped into the world, the feelings and emotions of each character. The reader is not only sympathetic but empathetic toward Esch as she discovers her pregnancy and comes to terms with what it will mean in her life, for Skeetah as he holds China sacred, doing all that he can for her and her puppies and even for their father as grapples still with the loss of his wife.
"I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes."
Read Salvage the Bones.
— Ashley Wilbourn Pinciaro