Hurricane Katrina lands full force in Jesmyn Ward’s probing novel,Salvage the Bones, winner of this year’s National Book Award. When the work was published, it was overlooked, but quickly—as a finalist for the National Book Awards—attention began to build to a crescendo when the novel won. A bit of a sleeper, perhaps, but deserving of the attention it has belatedly received. If you are still looking for a novel to give to someone these holidays, Salvage the Bones is the perfect choice in spite of its dark underbelly of the hurricane.
Ward follows her characters over a twelve-day period: ten of them before the hurricane, one for the day itself, and one afterwards—each day given a separate chapter. The focus is mostly on a black family in Boise Sauvage, Mississippi: the father, his three sons and a daughter. Daddy (as he’s called) tries to convince the rest of his family that a major hurricane is going to arrive. It’s in his bones; he can feel its arrival well before the forecasters get serious about the storm’s path. He wants to get one of his trucks ready so that once the storm is over he can make a little money hauling whatever is necessary for the victims who need help.
He’s got three sons. Randall, the oldest, who is seventeen; Skeetah, age sixteen; and Junior, who is seven. Then there’s Esch, his only daughter, who is fifteen and the narrator of the story. Mother died when Junior was born. The family is dirt poor; their property is cluttered with abandoned vehicles and broken appliances; the three older children have to share each other’s clothes—mostly shorts and t-shirts. All are controlled by their tyrannical father, an alcoholic; but the four siblings are strongly bonded, probably so they can act as a force against their surviving parent. All of West’s characters are deftly drawn, but especially Esch, who has only recently figured out that she is pregnant, though she’s been throwing up for days. She says she first had sex when she was twelve and there have been several guys since then, though none provide the emotional support that she craves.
Esch’s observations are rooted in Greek mythology, especially Medea, which she’s been reading during the summer vacation for her English course. Previously, she read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which clearly influenced Ward’s story. I’d go so far as to say that if Faulkner hadn’t written his novel, Ward wouldn’t have written hers—so the question of influence is more than of minor interest. The most obvious connection is the way that the dead mother in Ward’s story continues to influence the lives of the rest of the family, possess their thoughts, the same way that Addie Bundren controls the characters in Faulkner’s novel as they make their laborious journey to bury her.
But there are also parallels between the three brothers in Ward’s novel and the brothers in Faulkner’s, so strongly influenced that Junior, especially, reads as if he might have escaped from Faulkner’s story. Though he is seven, he doesn’t act that old. He clings to his older brothers, well before the hurricane becomes a threat. Randall constantly carries the younger boy around in his arms or on his back. Esch observes of him, “Sometimes I wonder if Junior remembers anything, or if his head is like a colander, and the memories of who bottle-fed him, who licked his tears, who mothered him, squeeze through the metal like water to run down the drain, and only leave the present
day, his sand holes, his shirtless bird chest, Randall yelling at him: his present washed clean of memory like vegetables washed clean of the dirt they grown in.”
Esch thinks about aborting her child, since (among other things) the guy who got her pregnant is already involved with another girl. When Skeetah’s pit bull, China, has her first litter of babies, there’s the constant fear that she will devour some of them. Then when her father loses three fingers in a freak accident, Esch makes the following juxtaposition: “Daddy breathes to Randall and Big Henry standing over him, the blood sluicing down his forearm. They are gripping Daddy’s wrist, trying to stop the bleeding. Skeetah is punching the metal he meets. China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?”
Seemingly to answer that question, but also connect Katrina to her deceased mother, Esch makes a final observation linking the two after the hurricane is over. She picks up a couple of stones and recalls her own mother’s stories of destructive hurricanes in the past. “I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”
From such disasters, myths emerge.
Salvage the Bones
By Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury, 259 pp., $24.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com.