Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I like books that take you somewhere. That thunder forward with the strength of a tornado, lifting you from whatever milieu you inhabit and dumping you right into another life; takes you by the hand and coaxes you to step into another skin, another soul. Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones does just that.
She sets the tone right from the beginning. The first chapter establishes the family. The main character, Esch, is remembering her mother and her brother’s dog as a puppy. Those memories give way to the revelation that the dog, China, is now having babies—and that Esch’s mother died post-childbirth after bringing her younger brother Junior to Earth. Ward lets you know from the first pages that this will not be a pristine journey—it will be full of dust and mucus, pain and blood. Esch’s siblings are gathered around the shed watching as her brother Skeetah midwifes, nurtures, and soothes China while “her sides ripple. She snarls, her mouth a black line…. and then she seems to be turning herself inside out. At her opening, [there is] a purplish red bulb. China is blooming.”
From the dusty shed where China has given birth, we spiral out to the rest of Esch’s world. We meet her oldest brother, Randall, and his basketball-playing friends. Her father—a drunken, broken man. China’s blooming gives way to five puppies—one dead. This blooming—through the tortuous pain of birth—is echoed in the journey of Esch, which is no less painful to witness. I cringed—I am an intensely empathetic reader—as she described her passive acceptance of young men’s sexual advances until she met Manny, who seemed to embody the sun. Manny is dead-end situation so bereft of pretense that he does not even look at Esch as they are coupling. Does not allow her to touch him. She accepts this with the ignorance of a child, the willingness of a lesser being content to bask—however briefly—in a god’s light. There is a flatness about Esch that’s terrifying to witness, but she is not dead, just unwatered, unnurtured, not-yet-bloomed. Her own blossoming was savagely interrupted when her mother died and she was left bereft, with no warm hand or prideful eyes to shower her with acceptance and guidance.
My entry to Esch’s world was not smooth, and I am not sure that the author intends for it to be. She intends to smack us in the face with the gritty, gory details of this impoverished family’s life. As I plodded through the first third of the book, my reading was stuttering and forced. Part of the challenge was the barren, dry, unforgiving world the story was set in; part of my struggle was the writing itself. The writing—muscularly creative and intense as it was—mirrored the clutter of the junkyard that surrounded Esch’s family home. The thicket of imagery, tossed me out of the story again and again. I found myself stuttering forward at a painful pace, stopping to puzzle out images, not because they were complex, but because they were as hard-shelled and sticky as Esch herself.
If the first third was like climbing a rocky cliff, picking my way along, looking for a handhold, the remainder of the novel was a downhill slide, complete with wind flying past my face. Had the reading experience eased up because I changed as a reader—having been fully indoctrinated into Esch's world, or had the author’s use of language actually shifted—Ward herself adapting her writing to the momentum of Esch’s story? Perhaps I simply made peace with this world of poverty and hard luck, perhaps Ward no longer had to work so hard to make the reader see what it means to be born black and poor in a small rural outpost of America. Regardless, Salvage the Bones won me over. I began to run with the pack, rooting for the characters as I would family, praying for Esch’s salvation, puzzling over Skeetah’s fierce emotions, wanting each and every one of them to win.
And win they do—but not because they come away from their journey unscathed. Esch is pregnant and spurned by the father of the child. Her brother Randall’s knee is busted and he is thrown out of a game that would win him a scholarship. Skeetah can’t seem to keep his puppies alive, and his beloved China’s grip on life seems touch-and-go after giving birth. And their father, he’s a lost cause, estranged from the family while living right under the same roof as them. When Katrina finally does thunder down upon them, the storm finds them maimed, hungry, scared, but unified.
They win because they survive. As the storm whips into a frenzy, Esch finally finds her voice. After the water starts to rise, her secret too, rises to the surface, and in the wake of the storm, she discovers a love and a redemption that she didn’t know was hers. In the wake of the storm, Skeetah continues to ruthlessly love China, demonstrating for Esch as well as for Salvage the Bones’s readers how deep love can run. By the end, they are no longer alien people inhabiting an oddly foreign landscape. Esch is a brave soul, whose awakening triggers a deep contemplation of debasement, the wretchedness of unrequited love, and the power of self regard. Skeetah is a burning ember of stubborn faith and unshakeable attachment—a mysterious demonstration of how far the human heart can journey into love.
Salvage the Bones succeeds in building an epic story from the goings-on of a tiny, insular family that inhabits an isolated, impoverished world. The narrative that runs—at the outset—in dogged pursuit of the prurient details of a shockingly bereft life, deftly pulls the reader into Esch’s microcosm so deeply that the world turns inside out, magnifying much larger themes of love, family bonds, self-respect, and familial responsibility. It is to Jesmyn Ward’s credit as a writer that this strange world that inspires horror, fear, and pity nimbly mutates into a bold narrative that sparks introspection, reflects wisdom, and ultimately remarks powerfully on the human condition.
Salvage the Bones
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Published on January 15, 2012 19:34
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Kiini Ibura Salaam
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