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Salvage the Bones

By Jesmyn Ward

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

Melinda Moustakis writes:

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones is a beautiful and lyrical novel about survival and resilience and the bare-bulb and bare-bones life of a family in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. The story is told through the captivating voice of Esch, a smart and vulnerable and complex only-girl among her three brothers named Skeetah, Randall, and Junior, and her widowed father and all her brother’s friends. Esch, in true fashion of a classic Bildungsroman, uses texts she reads in school such as Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and the story of Medea to form her own metaphors and similes in describing the fragile and complicated emotional eco-system of her family and community. Her story and the stories of those she holds dear and the stories of the place she calls home are worthy of an epic. 

Esch guides the reader through the ten days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, through the thrall of the storm and the aftermath the very next day. The immediacy of present tense is masterfully rendered―every moment counts, every moment is felt and captured and hard-hitting. The present is tense, intense: How to deal with a father’s incapacitating grief? The need of a basketball camp scholarship for Randall? Skeetah’s dream of turning a profit on his prized fighter-champion pit bull China and her pups? Pregnancy? Hunger? A beautiful boy who turns your heart but may or may not love you back? A hurricane no one else believes is actually coming?

Esch’s inner life is as rich and imaginative as her family’s house is dilapidated and sparse. One of the many triumphs of the book is the way in which the characters are tough and rough-hewn but also dignified by their devotion to each other. This devotion is tested many times and in many ways as each family member seeks comfort and sustenance as an individual and is then asked to make that one sacrifice that threatens to break one’s spirit so that the family can carry on. Because perhaps a semblance of comfort can be found in each other when one more tragedy, one more setback, one more heartbreak, one more storm threatens to destroy everything.

When asked, “Why did you want to write about Hurricane Katrina?” Ward, in the Q&A at the end of the novel, said, “I lived through it. It was terrifying and I needed to write about that. I was also angry at the people who blamed survivors for staying and for choosing to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the storm.” In reading this book, in becoming immersed in Esch’s story and feeling every hunger pain and injury along with her, one comes to understand that Bois Sauvage, with its oppressive heat and humidity and wild chickens and pathways strewn with broken oyster shells, is a place where an oncoming storm is just another possible tragedy in a life filled with them. When the shiny foil seasoning packet from a package of ramen noodles is a bright spot on a dark day, leaving the one possession that keeps the family together, the house, is not an option and even preparing the house for a hurricane is a mundane and maybe unnecessary chore among many chores. There is no other place to go. The day-to-day is enough of a struggle.

But it is the future, the gaping mouth of it, that is the biggest threat to this family. The novel ends at a point where so much has happened and so much will happen in the days and years after Hurricane Katrina. Either the characters’ resolve and full-hearted hopefulness will remain intact or this is the beginning of what cannot be endured, but must be endured. For the reader, the loss of any one of these characters would be like losing family, losing a bright, vibrant, flawed, surprisingly cruel, gorgeously tender part of oneself. With Esch’s searing voice, bite-your-nails tension, arresting imagery, and precision with every word, Salvage the Bones is, as many have said, a haunting and unforgettable read.

Melinda Moustakis is the author of the debut collection Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories, winner of the Flannery O' Connor Award in Short Fiction. She was named a 2011 5 Under 35 writer by the National Book Foundation and will be a 2012-2013 Hodder Fellow at The Lewis Center of the Arts at Princeton University.

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Judges That Year: Deirdre McNamer (Chair), Jerome Charyn, John Crowley, Victor LaValle, Yiyun Li

The Year in Literature:

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for literature.

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