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Salvage The Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
I don’t remember why I bought this book. It probably wasn’t that it won the National Book Award for 2011; more likely that it’s about the Mississippi coast in the time prior to Hurricane Katrina. I have family living on that coastline, and have visited the area many times, being from the not-so-far-away Louisiana “hill country.” (Don’t laugh – there are some.)
I’m white, though, and while all Southerners or all classes and races interact (although they sometimes don’t admit it), this book has a lot to say about the underprivileged of all ilks throughout the South. The book is about a black family – or what remains of one – in the two weeks or so leading up to Katrina.
The principal character and narrator is the girl of the family, Esch, and she’s pregnant. Esch has an alter ego of sorts in her brother Skeetah’s pit bull, China, who in the first few pages gives birth to her first litter. Skeetah is something of a dog whisperer, and his hold on China is little short of magical. There’s another brother, Randall, who has hoop dreams, and a late addition to the family, Junior.
A young lad named Manny has done the dirty with Esch; she’s in love with him, and is reluctant to tell him she’s pregnant. She goes through all the usual throes of morning sickness, having to guess what’s going on in her biology, but she’s a plucky kid, and she perseveres.
When Katrina hits, the family, which has already been turned upside down by poverty and the brood’s mother’s earlier death, is turned – I don’t know – sideways.
But this isn’t a story about victimization. It owes a lot to Victor Hugo’s underclass in Les Miserables – they improvise, they adapt, they attempt continually to overcome. Ward’s book leaves us with a poignant ending, but stamped with resilience and promise.
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Jesmyn Ward knows how to hold a reader, she takes us deep into the souls of Esch, particularly, but each of the others in the family as well. She paces her story like a pro, never leaving us in despair, with a hint of promise just over the horizon. The story’s details are what continued to charm me: Esch-as-narrator’s eloquence, her insight (although she often spoke more “street” in dialogue – but it works) in her condition, the family’s ongoing plight as well as their separate and collaborative dreams.
And especially the book's attention to nature: the weather, of course, the dog’s fleas, ants crawling across Esch’s toes, the smell of the unkempt house, the feel of sweat, the ramen and Vienna sausages they eat. Even the details of a series of dogfights.
This book clearly deserves the award. It’s about life, and I can tell you it speaks to life as a Southerner, regardless of race, or color, or creed.
My rating 19 of 20 stars.