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.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Writing: 5+ Plot: 5 Characters: 5

A powerful novel and I don’t use that word lightly. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The story takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Jojo is a thirteen year-old boy learning to be a man. He lives with his grandparents (“Pop” and “Mam”), his 3 year-old sister Kayla, and his mother (whom he calls Leonie) when she bothers to show up. Mam, Leonie, and both children have the “sight” — an ability to see and hear things that others don’t — and this filters into the story in significant and lyrical ways. The action centers around a trip to Parchman prison to retrieve Michael (the children’s white father) at the end of a three year sentence. However, the real story is about how a person can grow into an honorable and ethical human being when they are in a poisoned environment.

Jojo, Leonie, and Richie — the spirit of a young boy incarcerated at Parchman with Pop when he was 15 — are alternating narrators. The stories they tell weave together haunting tales of the past with their parallels in the present. Hints of voodoo and the thin veil between this world and the next suffuse the interlocking narratives.

The book is equal parts disturbing and heart warming; the end is quite glorious.

Some good lines
“Pop says a man should look another man in the face.”

“But it follows, even as I follow the trail of tender organ blood Pop has left in the dirt, a trail that signals love as clearly as the bread crumbs Hansel spread in the wood.”

“Even now, my devotion: inconstant.”

“I wait until the nicotine laps at my insides like a placid lake.”

“I blink and I see the bullet cleaving the soft butter of him. “

As an aside, I looked up Parchman Prison because I couldn’t believe some of the things I was reading and found the truth to be even worse: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison. Check out the Convict Lease Program.