“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward

“It’s a tough read” is what I heard, over and over, about Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, about a poor black family outside of New Orleans in the days before during and after Katrina. Yet the impression I got was also one of admiration. Plus I loved the cover, with its mismatched type, and rough sketched dog on the swampy green background. When it become a contender in The Morning News Tournament of Books I had yet another reason to read it.

It’s narrated by 15 year old Esch, the only female in her family. She has two older brothers, a hard-drinking father, and a younger brother born just before their mother died. Esch has an extended family in her brothers’ friends, one of whom, Manny, she’s in love with. Her brother Skeet has a pit bull named China, who births puppies as the novel opens.

China’s turned on herself. If I didn’t know, I would think she was trying to eat her paws. I would think that she was crazy. Which she is, in a way. Won’t let nobody touch her but Skeet.

The story goes forward day by day, ratcheting up the tension both with the events on the page, and what readers know is coming, though we don’t know exactly how it will affect them.

There is tragedy and violence in this book. Skeet has trained China to fight, and a long scene of a dog fight was difficult to read. But throughout, over and under all the “tough” stuff, there is a brightness to Esch’s voice, and a fierce love among all these characters (including the bond between Skeet and China) that made me feel lifted up, not beaten down, by this book. I feel it gets a bad rap, and that people will avoid it if all they hear is what a tough book it is. It’s rewarding and insightful with a tenderness and sweetness throughout that are resilient in the face of so much. I was sad to see it lose to Lightning Rods, but am so very glad to have finally read it.

6 Responses to ““Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward”

  1. Amy Says:

    I love books that deal with tough realities without being mean-spirited or nihilistic. Interesting review.

  2. Kate Says:

    Yay! Great review–you know I’m not good at reading “hard reads” that leave me hopeless, and yet I loved this book, so I think your identification of the brightness and fierce love is right on.

  3. Jack Vinson Says:

    for another take on Katrina, the local library did a group reading of Zeitoun, about a guy who stayed in New Orleans after the flooding and eventually got caught up in the strange police state that ensued. Even scarier that it is a true story.

  4. girldetective Says:

    Zeitoun is a powerful book, and a depressing reminder that racism is still alive and thriving. I also liked the doc Trouble the Waters and the graphic novel AD New Orleans.

  5. Jessica Says:

    I didn’t find SALVAGE THE BONES as “tough” as I expected based on the hype. It wasn’t sweetness and light, but I found plenty that pulled me in and plenty to love.

    The Medea stuff got on my nerves. And really I could’ve read a whole book just on Skeetah without any Esch in it at all. He was very much the soul of the book.

  6. girldetective Says:

    I agree that the Medea stuff was oversdetermined. And that Skeetah was a fabulous character, but I feel so tenderly to poor, motherless Esch. This book fails the Bechdel test, on purpose, and is part of what makes it so moving to me.