Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

This family puts the “hard” in hardscrabble — a mother dead from childbirth 8 years prior, a hard-drinking father who shambles about trying to take care of his family, and four children each following their own path to survival. 17-year-old Randall aims for the one basketball camp spot that may get him scout-spotted; 16-year-old Skeetah applies hyper focus to China, his prize pitbull, and her new litter, hoping for cash sales; Esch has sex with any boy who asks — it’s all she feels she has to offer; and 8-year-old Junior simply doesn’t want to be left behind. When Esch finds herself pregnant, she looks to China, Greek mythological figures such as Medea, and even the hurricane itself for insight into what it means to be a mother in her world.

Ward is the master of setting the scene — both external and internal — through small details. She manages to portray raw emotions through the tiniest gesture, or even absence of look or touch without ever resorting to over dramatization. It was a difficult book for me to read as I read casual violence, low expectations, poverty, and children being raised by circumstance rather than design — but speaking through Esch, she doesn’t focus on any of that. From Esch’s perspective, this is what life is, and she is optimistic about her survival, her family, and her community. Although Esch is as the center of the story as the first person narrator, the book is filled with wonderfully portrayed men — each focussed on their own story, some flawed, but most are good men trying to do right in the world in which they find themselves.

In truth I enjoyed Sing, Unburied Sing more — perhaps because I read it first, or perhaps because I read this equally powerful novel a little too soon afterwards. I found it disturbing to read and yet found that I couldn’t put it down. I read it within a 24 hour period.

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