Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction
A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets; she's fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull's new litter, dying one by one in the dirt, while brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child's play and short on parenting. As the twelve days that comprise the novel's framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel's heart—motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, "Salvage the Bones" is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.
Jesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.
Her work has appeared in BOMB, A Public Space and The Oxford American.
There is a moment in the beginning of this book when I want to put the book down (the birthing of puppies). There is a point in the middle when I breathe raggedly, as though from a gut punch (Ward’s description of the dog fight). And there are long stretches at the end of this book when I cannot take my horrified eyes from the page, when I feel my insides crumbling and my heart breaking and my memories reeling and I know I have read something extraordinary.
Jesmyn Ward just gives us words, but words like none other has written. She has put them together in a way that creates a world apart but with all the love, pain, pathos, hope, fear, and loyalty that we will recognize from the finest examples of our literature. When she describes the color and texture of a man’s arm, or the watery pressure of a new pregnancy, or the terror of discovering rising water through the floorboards of one’s living room, Jesmyn Ward has caught that thing as though it were alive.
When I try to say in a few words the story of this novel, everything I write is inadequate. A poor family lives outside a town but near the coast in Mississippi. Our narrator is fourteen with hair that frames her head “like a pillow.” She has three brothers, a father that drinks too much, and several paramours but one in particular. Katrina hits and we experience the storm.
This is classic literature, and, difficult as it may seem at first, wholly appropriate for teens. It is a little like saying A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah is a teen title. That book, about a teen forced into soldiering in Sierra Leone, is similarly hard-hitting. It might be better for our teens to know than not to know. They are exposed to so much anyway--a little reality might improve their outlook. I wouldn't "require" this novel, but I would add it to reading lists. Teens can do much worse than experience the exquisite sense of language in this wholly original work.
The outstanding writing abilities of Jesamyn Ward are indisputable in this emotionally visceral powerhouse of a novel, epic in scope, pitching the indomitable spirit of a family to survive, against all the odds, with the destructive and devastating monster of nature that is Hurricane Katrina, wreaking havoc on the Mississipi coastal town of Bois Sauvage. Esch is the black 14 year old narrator, pregnant, the only girl surroundes by males. Mother died in childbirth, and father is a hard drinking man, often absent from family life. They are a family that has lived generations in poverty and squalor, residing in a junkyard. The narrative spans twelve days, in which Ward establishes the gritty and brutal circumstances of the family and its characters, attempting to build up supplies and water, limited by the options open to them, and the coming of and aftermath of Katrina.
Esch has been enjoying sex for a while, driven by her search for love, but is drawn to one person in particular. Her brother, Skeetah is trying to keep alive the puppies of his pitbull, China, but failing. Randall has dreams of basketball as his path out of poverty, and Junior has no memories of his mother. There are harrowing depictions of dogfights which are desperately hard to stomach. Amidst this dysfunctional family, conflict is rife amongst the siblings. It is abundantly clear that they are ill equipped for Katrina, but their love for each other binds them together as a force of nature in its own right as they look out for each other in their battle to survive. It is this that provides a glimmer of hope in what would otherwise be a relentlessly bleak if atmospheric picture of marginalised poor black communities, with nowhere else to go, viewed as of little consequence by the rest of society, feared and abandoned, and left to fend for themselves.
Without doubt, this is often a troubling, brutal and challenging read, but the compelling and authentic force driving the narrative makes reading it an infinitely rewarding experience. The phenomenal quality of the vibrant, poetic and lyrical prose had me feeling as if I was there with the Batiste family, living precariously, and facing all its travails. Ward gives us richly detailed descriptions, deploying powerful imagery and creates characters that have the reader emotionally invested in the book, I was rooting for Esch all the way. This is a brilliant and uncompromising read which has indelibly imprinted itself on my mind and my imagination, although I accept this novel might not be for everyone. Highly recommended! Many thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC.
The audiobook narrator....by Cherise Booth, is outstanding!
Author Jesmyn Ward's writing is beautiful- lyrical....lovely as can be!!!!
Between the Jesmyn's usage of language- poetic - sometimes calming the issues at hand. and Cherise's engaging voice - "Salvage The Bones" - feels 'real'....tragic - and completely heartbreaking. My heart was racing the last couple of chapters.....where it was almost stopped at beginning. - Two extreme emotions from start to finish.
Most of the book takes place a few days before Hurricane Katrina....set in a small town in Mississippi. A very haunting - often gut wrenching story - about a black poor family. There is loss. There is love.......and this is a hard book to shake- or review..... because nothing I say feels it can describe the experience.
Esch, is 14 years old. She's the only girl in the family, as her mother died years ago. She tends to follow her three brothers Skeetah, Randall, and Junior, around as much as possible. Their father is an alcoholic- but when not drinking he is preparing for Katrina. A believable narrator, Esch describes how she easily 'surrendered' to sex. She was having sex with many of her brothers friends - but has her eyes on one of the boys - Mandy. Esch describes being pregnant as if representing all the painful - struggles of all young women everywhere who have ever been in her shoes. Well, at least that's how I felt. It was so real - and such a sad situation. Plus, I cringed with the dog fighting themes......but there is a purpose for them. Skeetah tries to save his dog, China's, pit bull's litter but they were sick...not an easy scene to take in...yet - again -- themes keep tie together up to the end... Randal, the other brother, is a gifted basketball player who dreams of having a professional career. ......but it's Esch's story as the only girl in this family who I still am left thinking about.
For three days 'before' the hurricane hits we see this family, 'all' trying to survive challenging situations and poverty.... -and then THE BIG REALITY HITS... survival at a whole new level. A very powerful book.
Mississippi is a strange place. To say it is conservative is a euphemism for... well you make a judgment: It took about 130 years for the State legislature to approve the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution which made slavery illegal (1995 I believe)*. I doubt Mississippi is on many bucket lists. Salvage the Bones explains why it really isn’t a tourist destination.- in addition to the horrid climate.
The family Batiste exists on a knife edge, “starving, fighting, struggling” in the piney woods of Southern Mississippi. Any mis-step can lead to disaster. They are vaguely aware of this vulnerability but do little to protect themselves. Their preparations for a threatening hurricane are more symbolic than effective. Their everyday lives are lived warily but with a haphazard casualness they seem to understand as courage; perhaps it is. It is impossible to tell if they are stoical or merely submissively resigned to overwhelming forces.
“It’s all contaminated,” one of the brothers says. “Everything.” And it is. The plot of land they live on, the sand pit they swim in, the various domestic animals they keep, the entire existential scheme in which they find themselves. The naïveté of 14 year old Esch, the narrator, is startling. Her life is emotionally and physically brutal, made only worse by her fantasies of Greek heroes and their lovers. Even these classical myths are contaminated by the facts of her life.
“So now we pick at the house like mostly eaten leftovers.” The grandparents’ house is progressively cannibalized to make inadequate improvements to their own deteriorating dwellings. The family conspires to destroy their own history plank by plank. Their “present is washed clean of memory like vegetables washed clean of the dirt they grow in.” They have lived in the coastal lowlands for generations but they have fewer roots than the palmettos they live among.
“We live in the black heart of Bois Sauvage.” Is that a place of refuge or a prison? It’s protection against the alien “white Bois” and the folk who “live out away in the pale arteries.” The family come across white folk at school and the supermarket but they don’t speak except in emergencies. A sort of apartheid of the heart prevails. There is mutual non-recognition.
“These are my options, and they narrow to none.” This applies not just for the pregnant Esch but also for the entire family. There are no options, no real choices they have to make other than to submit or not to what’s presented to them. Hope is not something they engage in. They move on from one imminent aspiration to the next: “Always crazy for something.” They take unnecessary risks because... well they just do. At least something unexpected might result, something different. Mostly it���s something worse.
The spine of the story is a vicious pit-bull terrier whose litter of puppies is as threatened by her as every other living thing within range of her muzzle. She is like the impending storm: still and silent until suddenly deadly. The dog is male machismo made flesh and bone, the psychological anima expressed in reality. It’s function is to fight and maim and cause pain so the male doesn’t have to do it himself. But as most men find out sooner or later, the anima is very high maintenance and entirely unreliable.
Esch’s parallel animus is not to be trifled with either - she’s not going to let some Jason treat her like an hapless Medea. The black Athena inside her will fight for survival. Like the storm “she made things happen that had never happened before.” Whatever Bois Sauvage had been before the storm - the demarcations between black and white, the male competitions, the designation of rich and poor - no longer exist. “Suddenly there is a great split between now and then.” A way to start over... perhaps. It is Mississippi after all.
* See messages 2 & 5 below for clarification of this point.
Tre linee narrative perfettamente intrecciate come in un dreadlock: la quindicenne Esch, l’unica figlia femmina della famiglia Batiste, voce narrante, che scopre d’essere incinta e porta avanti una gravidanza nascosta e taciuta a base di conati e nausea; il fratello Skeetah, o Skeet, e la sua bianca pitbull China, che partorisce il primo giorno, fa cinque cuccioli, una piccola fortuna per questa famiglia disastrata del bayou; l’uragano Katrina che avanza, i dieci giorni che lo precedono, finché arriva, colpisce, devasta, punisce come una divinità greca. E tutte e tre le storie giorno dopo giorno, man mano che le pagine scorrono si caricano d’elettricità, proprio come succede prima di un tornado. E più cresce l’elettricità e più il lettore si carica d’attesa.
Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys: Medea (1866-1868).
A raccontare è proprio Esch, e Jesmyn Ward secondo me azzecca la sua voce in modo magistrale: senza leziosità o artifici giovanilistici, la voce di Esch è al centro del racconto, semplice, asciutta come il fango riarso dal sole del Mississippi lungo la Costa dei Lupi (sul Golfo del Messico), capace di voli, ganci e agganci, inserti, tutti magnifici, teneri, struggenti, con ritmo da ipnosi e grande uso del tempo presente in continua dissonanza col passato.
La storia d’amore di Esch con Manny è a senso unico: lui perlopiù la ignora, non la guarda mai negli occhi, vive con un’altra, si accorge di lei solo quando fanno sesso, in preda a pulsione selvaggia. Esch gli nasconde la sua gravidanza come Medea nascondeva i suoi poteri a Giasone e gli Argonauti. E il suo amore sembra così forte e viscerale come quello per Giasone di Medea che arrivò a uccidere suo fratello e farlo a pezzi che sparse nel mare così suo padre che inseguiva lei e il suo innamorato perdeva tempo e terreno raccogliendo i pezzi del corpo del figlio. Arriverà forse Esch per vendetta verso Manny a uccidere la creatura che ha in grembo come Medea uccise i suoi figli per punire Giasone?
La storia d’amore tra Skeetah e China, tra ragazzo nero e femmina di pitbull bianco è invece mutua, pienamente ricambiata: il padrone stravede per il suo cane, le sussurra all’orecchio, e la bestia ha occhi solo per lui, pronta a difenderlo da tutti e tutto. China è madre protettiva ma spietata, può dare la vita e può dare la morte: come Medea, come la signora Batiste che ha dato la vita a Junior e lui in cambio le ha dato la morte.
L’azione è ambientata nella zona probabilmente più povera dello stato più povero tra i cinquanta che compongono gli US, il Mississippi: Jesmyn Ward la battezza Bois Sauvage. Tutti i personaggi sono neri, poveri tra i poveri, emarginati tra gli emarginati. Ma l’uragano farà differenza tra ricchi e poveri o si comporterà come una vera livella? Sono scomparsi anche la stazione di servizio, lo yacht club e tutte le vecchie case col colonnato bianco affacciate sulla spiaggia, che ci facevano sentire piccoli, sporchi e più poveri che mai quando durante le nostre gite al mare venivamo qui con papà, tutti ammassati nel furgone, per procurarci carburante, patatine o esche. Non si vedono né danni né macerie: è scomparso tutto e basta.
La madre è morta dando alla luce l’ultimo nato, Junior. I sopravvissuti, il padre, il figlio maggiore Randall campione di basket, Skeetah, Esch, e il piccolo Junior, sono uniti come le dita di una mano, non hanno bisogno di parlare, hanno occhi per vedere e pelle per sentire. Ma anche le dita di una mano possono disarticolarsi: il padre ne perde tre nel tentativo di proteggere la casa prima dell’arrivo di Katrina, e uno era quello che portava la fede matrimoniale.
Magnifico sin dal principio, poi, in crescendo, sempre più bello.
…la storia di Katrina, la madre che è entrata nel golfo per portare la morte. Il suo carro era una tempesta terribile e nera, e i greci avrebbero detto che era trainata dai draghi. La madre assassina che ci ha feriti a morte e tuttavia ci ha lasciati vivi, nudi, stupefatti e raggrinziti come bimbi appena nati, come cuccioli ciechi, come serpentelli appena usciti dal guscio, affamati di sole. Ci ha lasciati qui perché impariamo a camminare da soli. A salvare ciò che possiamo. Katrina è la madre che ricorderemo finché non arriverà un’altra madre dalle grandi mani spietate, sanguinaria.
when i finished the book, i realized that the hurricane's presence in it had been much stronger than i had realized at first. even though katrina occupies only two chapters, it seems as if the prose breathes hurricane weather in and out in every chapter -- through water, heat, stifling humidity, the stillness of the air and then the non-stillness of the air as the trees sway in a wind that gives no relief, hunger, dirt, restless sleep. you know it if you've been in a hurricane, but i think having followed one on tv may be enough. the tv, though, doesn't give much of a sense of the tremendous heat. the heat and the humidity are enormous.
so this book is pretty amazing -- brave, really, because it tells, it seems to me, a rather unconventional story using the weather as the thing the book is about, the atmosphere the book's events are wrapped in, and a metaphor for various elements of the narrative. this is a book that is rife with metaphors, but they didn't seem heavy to me; also, i don't mind heavy.
the story is unconventional because these are people who are truly at the margins of representation. poor, rural black people appear in movies and books only as color. if they play any role at all other than that, it is to be bit characters in genre fiction. there are just not a lot of places where you get to see rural black folks in their communities as fully developed characters with rich, interesting and complex lives. my personal experience proves nothing, of course, but i think i've encountered these people only in slave literature -- and then they were not these people at all (i'm mentioning them only because they were black, rural, and poor)!
so really this is interesting and beautiful because it opens up a space for other people to be met, seen, and known. it enlarges the scope of representation. it enriches the cultural village. there is a huge blank space in representation and this book helps fill it.
and these lives are interesting. they are fascinating. they are rich with love, desire, family, courage, survival, communication, growing up, trying to be good, trying to do good. they are not alien lives. they are intense and nuanced lives minus air conditioning, square meals, and working televisions. this should not need to be said and maybe my saying it is offensive, but i think many of us just don't realize it because we never see it. poor rural black people are just about as othered as people get in our society. i think i feel more connected to poor black folks in other countries than to poor black folks in the united states. if our culture does anything about poor rural (and urban) black communities, it teaches us to be afraid of them. this book kicks this fear in the teeth.
i think, by the way, that jesmyn ward did the exact right thing in not trying to represent accents and regionalisms in the writing, because that would have reproposed the othering.
there is so much more than can be said about this book -- in fact, i have spoken not at all about what happens in it. but we are discussing this in january 2012 over at Literary Fiction by People of Color so there will be plenty of time to get into the intricacies of the story when the discussion gets started (link to come). what i wanted to say here was mostly that this is a beautiful and brave novel, and that everyone should read it, and then maybe a movie should be made of it, and that people should start getting to know each other beyond the heinous stereotypes hammered into us by the stupid news.
Unfortunately, I felt like I was reading an extended undergrad creative writing piece, not an award winning author. The language is just so hard to get through-everything is a simile. I counted 3 uses of "like" to describe someone or something in one short paragraph. I had to slog my way through it, but I did find there were parts that intrigued me more than others and did want to read on, thus not a total dislike.
I couldn't dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life doesn't spare us. -Jesmyn Ward
The words in this novel are wounds with fragile scabs. This story is the beat of a wounded girl's heart; it bleeds on the page and hurts to read. These words are tears that have not been shed, so they build up on the inside and fill up buckets of anguish:
I learned how to cry so that almost no tears leaked out of my eyes, so that I swallowed the hot salty water of them and felt them running down my throat.
Hurricane Katrina is twelve days away. Enter The Pit, a clearing of trailer homes in the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Junk cars, used appliances, a misplaced RV, and fighting pit bulls. Hear from Esch, a motherless child who searches for love in sex, a child with a drunk and physically abusive father, a girl child who lives with three brothers in a place as dark as night, with some semblance of love to shine through.
Here, love is distorted, perception skewed. The rest of the world exists on the other side of The Pit, where it averts its face. Hurricane Katrina knows this. She targets them with her fighting winds, these downtrodden survivors, but in them she meets her match. For survivors are powerless but strong. And in The Pit, these survivors know all about fighting back. They fight to live, fight to love; maybe this is what the book is about - the unrelenting will to survive, to fight despite the obstacle. Even in the middle of scenes that made me cringe, I saw Struggle stand bold and brave (especially through the character Skeet). These words feel tender yet tough; gritty yet gentle. And love exists here, askew and blemished, still, it exists.
2.7. Nie było tu nic co mnie wzruszyło, nic co by przyciągnęło moją uwagę. Tak, książka dobrze napisana, ale mam wrażenie, że jest to trochę wydmuszka. Tyle ciekawych tematów (huragan, nastoletnia ciąża, przemoc domowa) a żaden z nich nie został mam wrażenie pogłębiony. Pewnie jest dobra, ale do mnie nie trafiła. P.S. Jak to jest, że z tyłu książki jest napisane ze jej fabuła rozgrywa się w ciagu 12 dni, drugiego dnia dziewczyna dowiaduje się o ciąży, a 8 widać jej już brzuch, na tyle, żeby jej brat mógł się domyślić? No chyba, że to było tylko w jej głowie Ah no i jeszcze te psy. Kompletnie mnie tu nie obeszły. Jedyne co czułam podczas czytania to dystans
First off, this novel reminds me of three other works of fiction: Little Bee, The Tortilla Curtain and Where the Crawdads Sing. The problem I have with all of these books is that they scream, “I want a movie deal!” This has always been an issue for me. I know that writers make money when their books are bought for movies, but I don't have to like it when the story feels as though it has been contrived, in order to do so.
My next big complaints: the two main themes in this novel are dog abuse/dog fighting and precocious teenaged sex, bordering on rape. (Neither of these are plot spoilers, by the way, and they are both mentioned on the back of my book).
To be clear. . . I don't need to like the theme of a book, or the characters, actually, to appreciate good writing. But, I was tasked here, as a reader, to endure two depressing storylines, mixed with some good writing and some contrived writing. What there was for me, here, was a fantastic, 100 page novella about a 15-year-old girl named Esch Batiste. I just wish I could have taken an X-ACTO knife and cut out the remaining two thirds of the story.
Esch Batiste is not only the star of the book, she's really the only three-dimensional character in the story. Her brother, Skeetah (whose name bothered me the entire read, I could not help but think of Judy Blume's little Fudge who calls his older brother Pe-tah instead of Peter), is almost there as a secondary character, but still lacking. The rest of the male characters (and they are all male characters) suffer from chronic underdevelopment.
But, it is in Esch's development as a character that we can truly sense Jesmyn Ward's talents as a writer. Esch begins as a dull girl, completely devoid of attentions or talents. A girl who has had to raise herself up without a mother, a grandmother, or any female figure. She is a shadow, almost, a young woman who barely makes a peep, who started letting boys pull down her shorts and enter her body at the precious age of 12, because, “it was easier to let [them] keep on touching me than ask [them] to stop.”
She lets her brothers's friends use her, over and over again, without loving her, without kissing her, and explains, “I'd let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne. I was beloved.”
It's not long before we learn that one of the grubby, disrespectful boys has impregnated the young Esch (also not a plot spoiler), and we spend a lot of time on the toilet with this teen, whose first trimester of pregnancy is one of quiet terror and confusion.
In one of the most painful lines in the book, Esch consults her newly pregnant image in a mirror and tells us, “Mama was wrong: I have no glory. I have nothing.”
But something is bubbling under the surface. We learn that Esch is strong, and she's a faster runner than most of her athletic brothers. She has something: grit, strength, survival skills. She's resourceful, and she's waking up to her reality. These fools around her are going to get her nowhere, fast.
Their prize-winning champion dog is a female, the hurricane (Katrina) that looms in the distance is a female, and, though Esch has been denied the comfort of a female role model, she wakes up to the notion that she must summon her own inner Medea.
I would like to tell Jesmyn Ward: forget about chain saws that suddenly appear, out of nowhere, in dark attics without electricity, to saw open the attic roof, for dramatic effect. Don't worry about movie deals.
Let's salvage the bones, lady, and get back to Medea.
Poignant and powerful, the story is narrated by fourteen-year-old Esche, who lives in Mississippi with her three brothers and father. Their mother died in childbirth, and the family is struggling both financially and emotionally. They survive the only way they know how. Many of the ways are heartbreaking and would be easy to judge: raising pit bulls, dog fighting, a young teenager looking for love in all the wrong places with all the wrong people, and a father who drinks and is largely absent.
But Jesmyn’s command of the language and poetic prose allowed me a peek into their hearts and minds and I felt nothing but compassion. The touching love and strong bond between Esche's brother, Skeetah, and his dog, China, and the bond and love between the siblings were expressed beautifully. Quite simply, the author touched my heart and I was brought to tears more than once.
Amidst the poverty and the grief, a very real danger is on its way: Hurricane Katrina. The book covers the 12 days leading up to the storm. I could feel the unrelenting heat and humidity of Mississippi, and I felt the terror of the storm. Ward has an uncanny ability to put her reader in the midst of the action and feel what her characters feel. The chapters when Katrina makes landfall are riveting. The author and her family survived Katrina, so she writes with authenticity on the subject. I appreciated the afterward where she talks of her experience.
The book is extremely gritty and some parts were difficult to read, especially the dog fighting (I skimmed those pages). But in the midst of the ugliness is beauty in the love and bond between the siblings, and the bond between Skeetah and his dog. Beauty and ugliness can coexist.
No review I write could possibly do justice to this book. The characters took hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go. With a heavy heart, I was left contemplating their plight for days after I turned the last page. What is salvaged after such devastation? This family had so little in terms of material possessions, and they are far from the poor but noble long-suffering family often depicted in literature, but they do have their love and devotion to one another, imperfect though it is. Thankfully, the book ended on a hopeful note.
* The gritty scenes with dog fighting were difficult but important for the plot. Normally this would have been enough for me to DNF, but I skimmed those pages and I was rewarded for my efforts.
I went to grad school with Jesmyn Ward and have been a fan of her work for years--so I expected to love this book. But I had no idea how deeply it would move me. Some lines stayed with me for days after I'd finished reading it. I couldn't stop thinking about Esch and her family, the grittiness of their world, and the fierceness of their love for each other.
I have no clue how to rate this book. It’s so raw, so visceral, so brutal. It’s a hard story to read because it’s so depressing. It’s saving grace is how beautifully it’s written.
Esch is fourteen and pregnant. Her mother is dead, her father is an alcoholic, basically absent. We’re talking extreme poverty, where food is scarce, everyone is unemployed and theft is a necessity.
The one love affair is basically between Skeetah and his pit bull, China, who’s just had puppies. This was hard for me as Skeetah obviously loves China but still uses her as a fighter. I’m sorry, how the hell can anyone do that? Sections of this book are positively gruesome, including some dog fighting scenes. This was a book I literally had to keep putting down and walking away. If I weren’t reading it for a book club, I’m not sure I could have finished it.
Ward relies on the story of Medea to give us a sense of context. Writing of Katrina, Ward states “she left us a dark Gulf and salt burned land. She left us to learn to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large unmerciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”
I thought writing this review might provide some clarity for me as to how to rate it. But I’m still torn. It’s not a book I can easily recommend as it has a lot of ugly violence. But it is an important book.
This book takes place over the course of twelve days and in those twelve days a lot happens. A dog, China, becomes a Mother in a very detailed birthing sequence, a young teen, Esch, learns she is going to be a Mother, and Motherless children prepare for a Hurricane in between attending dog fights, fighting among themselves and caring for their drunk father.
Esch and her brothers live in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Their Mother passed away after giving birth and they are left in the care of their father who is mainly absent from their lives. The children are left to their own devices and raise each other. Esch is fourteen years old and has just discovered that she is pregnant. She has a huge crush on the father but the harsh realities of life are that not everyone you love....loves you back. Skeetah is attempting to save China's puppies after they are born. He loves his dog - China is his pride and joy. She is a pit bull known in the dog fighting circuit. There are some dog fighting scenes which may be disturbing to some readers. Randall is a basketball player who dreams of going pro one day. Junior is the youngest and is basically looked after by his older siblings.
Teen pregnancy, puppies being born, dog fighting, a drunk father, poverty and a hurricane make for a raw and gritty book. This family has it rough but they come together and support each other. Even their father is able to pull himself together enough to try and prepare for Hurricane Katrina.
The beauty in this book is in the beautiful writing, that and the love of a boy for his dog. This book is depressing and sad but also full of familial love. The descriptions are vivid and detailed.
This was about community - the erosion of it, but also its diamond that could only be made under such pressure. We begin with a small community in the south - a poor, black family, recently eroded by the death of their mother. The father hovers around the edges in his alcohol-fueled moods, but is mostly absent, leaving the four siblings and their friends to look to one another for moral codes. They are immature creatures never meant to bring each other to maturity, and the whole time you can feel something building - it’s literally blowing in the breeze. In the end they face the ultimate test of erosion to their community in the form of Hurricane Katrina.
I love books that immerse me in a known event from the intimate perspective of a character just living a life. Esch, a 15-year-old girl, shares everything with us as she struggles with family and friends, romance and sex, death, survival and strength. With such generosity, she lets us into her world as if we’re already there, used to it, and judgement-free. With her, we experience Hurricane Katrina moment by moment, first hand. Despite the footage of Katrina from Louisiana, I never thought about how it effected Mississippi, and I came away feeling like I’d been there.
The thing is, I didn’t love Sing, Unburied, Sing. (This is a trilogy by Ward, and I probably should have read it in order instead of backwards), although it might objectively be the better book. I know that falling in love with everything Esch helped to immerse me in this one (she’s smart, loyal, courageous, imaginative, and deeply loving, and it is these inner strengths that guide her), whereas Sing, Unburied, Sing felt fragmented and uneven, even though it might be more refined. This story touched me. The characters lingered for a few days after I left the book behind, vivid and alive.
In this, there is violence (mostly in the form of dog fights, but still harrowing), sexual precocity (Esch has sex with boys because it’s just easier than saying no), and deep poverty (the teens cook and share a squirrel when hungry), along with misdirected mothering, fierce loyalty, commitment, tenderness and love. Katrina is the ultimate erosion of this community - the culmination of that feeling we’ve had all along - and yet, in the midst of disaster, Ward gives us hope that all will be rebuilt, together.
With 2017 being the most deadly year in U.S. history for hurricanes, and Jesmyn Ward ONCE AGAIN winning the National Book Award for "Sing, Unburied Sing," I figured it was well past time for me to read her debut novel, "Salvage the Bones." And my goodness... what the hell took me so long?
Ward has crafted one of the most spellbinding novels with this effort. The book exudes that southern heat that comes in the hours and days before a monster storm, the vivid landscape of this rural, poor fictional Mississippi town is alive on every page. And Ward's 14-year-old female protagonist named Esch might be one of the most dynamic and realistic characters I've read in some time.
This is a novel, though fiction, that should be shared with so many in our polarized culture. As America braces for the likelihood of many more superstorms to come in the future, it's vitally important that more people read works like these that build the empathy we are so lacking in today's culture. We're not going to stop mindlessly polluting or stupidly discrediting global warming—at least not with this administration—but we can learn to understand the experiences of one another. "Salvage the Bones" is a taut, intelligent, and exciting book that I adored; I can't wait to see what Ward has up next.
This book has been on my tbr for years, and I kept putting it off because I knew some of it would be tough to read, but if I had known of the power and beauty of the writing my reluctance would have been overcome much sooner.
As Katrina bears down on Bois Sauvage, the Batiste family tries to prepare while dealing with poverty and other problems for each of the 4 children. Randall is hoping for a scholarship to a basketball camp which may open the door to college for him. Skeeter is the proud owner of a pit bull that has just given birth, and he needs to keep her and her puppies alive. Esch is a 15 year old who has just discovered that she is pregnant. And 7 year old Junior is just trying to grow up, not remembering the mother who died giving birth to him, but missing her all the same. Their father is the one who is taking the hurricane warnings most seriously, but he drinks a lot and can be violent at times.
We throw this mix into the face of a category 5 hurricane, historic in its destruction, and we get ......beauty and awe. Awe at the ways these brothers and their sister take care of each other and their father. Beauty in the memory of their mother, dead for 7 years but alive on every page. Awe at the ability to improvise when materials are needed with no money to buy them, and beauty in the friends that share what they have, even if if it's precious little.
This author actually survived Katrina with her family, and she puts us there with the heat and the water and the fear during the hurricane, and the loss and disbelief in the aftermath. Ward is a brilliant and poetic writer and I read the last 120 pages in one sitting.
Honorable mention to Big Henry and to China the pit bull. The story would not have been the same without them.
Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. What has always been a hand-to-mouth existence for the Batiste family is being threatened even further as Hurricane Katrina bears down upon them. Their preparations have been pitifully scant, with each person having his/her own personal struggle going on, other issues demanding attention.
Some of the reviews speak of the raw depictions contained in these pages. It's true. Do not expect to be able to skim these sections in order to read this book. They are plentiful and even integral to the story. When all is said and done, the tenacious will to survive remains.
This is one of those books I would never have picked up if not for reading a review by one of my GR buddies (thanking you here, Diane Barnes). If you are willing to risk your gut and your heart, make haste and get a copy of this. What this author can do with her settings and family relationships is not of this world.
When the finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction were announced last month, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was among those critics grumbling about the obscurity of some of the authors (Andrew Krivak?), even some of the publishers (Lookout Books?). Partly, I was annoyed that novels I’ve adored this year (“Doc,” “State of Wonder”) didn’t make the cut, and partly I was operating under the time-tested prejudice that books I’ve read are always better than books I haven’t read.
But one of the judges, a writer named Victor LaValle, whose critical opinions I admire, fired off a refreshingly assertive retort to people like me in Publishers Weekly. Denying that he and his fellow judges had ignored popular novels in hopes of making the public “eat their spinach,” he said, “These five books worked some special kind of magic on us. In the end, what’s any good reader really hoping for? That spark. That spell.”
I’m happy to eat my words. And my spinach. I’ve just read another one of the so-called obscure finalists, “Salvage the Bones,” the second book from Alabama writer Jesmyn Ward, and it’ll be a long time before its magic wears off.
This trim, fiercely poetic novel takes place in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Miss., in the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The way that approaching storm compresses this story about devoted siblings recalls Jayne Anne Phillips’s “Lark and Termite,” which in 2009 was also a finalist for the National Book Award. But Ward is working on a more elemental level — no mystical sympathies between long-separated people, no kaleidoscopic impressions of the mentally impaired.
On one level, “Salvage the Bones” is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy.
The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect.
She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. As the story opens, Esch realizes she’s pregnant by an older boy named Manny. “He was the sun,” she swoons. A junior in high school with a thirst for books, Esch is devouring Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology,” vibrating in sympathy with Medea’s boundless passion. “When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her,” Esch says, “I know her.” She laps up the ardor of that fiery myth and continually translates her own unrequited love into the tropes of those ancient stories. “In every one of the Greek’s mythology tales,” she notices, “there is this: a man chasing a woman, or a woman chasing a man. There is never a meeting in the middle.”
A palpable sense of desire and sorrow animates every page here (and how surprisingly Ward employs the classics). Without her mother, and with a father who moves clumsily along the edge of their lives, Esch is struggling to figure out what love is. Can it be the unyielding ache she feels for a boy who rejects her? Can it be the sense of care she feels for her elfin youngest sibling, who plays among the garbage and rusting trucks in the yard? Or is true love closer to what her older brother Skeetah feels for his pit bull, China?
That relationship between a boy and his dog was the genesis of Ward’s novel, and it remains the most striking aspect of the story. Skeetah’s affection for China shimmers with that transcendent understanding you see sometimes between owners and their animals, and in this case, it’s a bond fraught with contradictory allusions, from “Sounder” to Michael Vick. Skeetah’s entire life revolves around his beloved dog and the five fragile puppies she gives birth to at the opening of the novel. But he also pits China against other dogs in illegal fights that provide the book’s bloodiest scenes. This may be Ward’s most masterful move: her ability to capture the tenderness between a boy and his dog, while also rendering their joint enthusiasm for these vicious fights sickeningly believable.
But to be honest, everything in “Salvage the Bones” sounds believable, even the fantastical climax that most of us only watched from a distance on TV. Ward survived Katrina with her family in De Lisle, Miss., and her description of the storm, the blind terror, the force of wind and water, is filled with visceral panic. What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion. Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” is an odds-on favorite for the National Book Award, partly because it’s the only well-known novel among the finalists, but “Salvage the Bones” has the aura of a classic about it.
3.5★ “. . . he wanted the other me. The pulpy ripe heart. The sticky heart the boys saw through my boyish frame, my dark skin, my plain face. . . . I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne. I was beloved.”
Home is on land they call the Pit outside the fictional Mississippi coastal town of Bois Sauvage. Esch’s family is poor, rough, and dirty.
She loves mythology and escapes by reading and imagining. She tells us her first time having sex was when she was twelve. She’s now about 16, and there is a collection of older boys who wander in and out of the story, a couple of whom slept with her in the beginning but whom she’s now rejected in favour of the one she has a crush on, Manny. He’s tossing a basketball outside with her brother.
“I wondered if Medea felt this way before she walked out to meet Jason for the first time, like a hard wind come through her and set her to shaking. The insects singing as they ring the red dirt yard, the bouncing ball, Daddy’s blues coming from his truck radio, they all called me out the door.”
Manny is a cad of the first order – we don’t like him. He lives with his girlfriend, but Esch is always handy for a secret quickie. She is determined to get him to kiss her and show some affection.
I kept being reminded of a cartoon I saw once, where one girl says to another, “Your boyfriend takes advantage of you. Why do you put up with it?” The other replies “At least he chooses me to take advantage of.”
Esch values herself not at all. She tells us about her brothers, her father, her late mother, her grandparents. We see her only through her telling.
Her mother died having her little brother, and her father doesn’t really know what to do with her. She’s closest to Skeetah, the older brother who is totally devoted to his vicious (except to him) fighting bitch, China, and later to her puppies. People and clothes are filthy, sweaty, smelly. Unpleasant, yes, but real and true.
Esch kept wandering back down sidetracks to tell us about memories or fill us in on background, and I got impatient. It was her escape, no doubt, but I was worrying along with her father about the hurricane warnings!
I also found myself beginning to skim long sections where the boys are playing basketball or the dogs are fighting, and I mean FIGHTING.
The best part was the hurricane – both horrific and terrific. That was absolutely compelling and page-turning. There’s no doubt Ward can write and will continue to win awards.
I particularly enjoyed a section after the story finished which included an interview with her from NPR's All Things Considered (November 17, 2011) about her own experience with Hurricane Katrina after having been told so many times about her parents’ experience with Hurricane Camille in 1969.
“For my parents, the storm was called Camille, and on August 17, 1969, it made landfall. . . . The wind sounded like a train , my mother said every time she told me the story, and even though the metaphor made sense, I couldn’t hear it. . . . My storm was Katrina. . . . The sky turned orange and the wind sounded like fighter jets. So that’s what my mother meant: I understood then how that hurricane, like Camille, had unmade the world, tree by water by house by person. Even in language, it reduced us to improbable metaphor.”
By far the most difficult book to trudge through that I've read this year, or in recent history for that matter. Over-stylized + over-aestheticized to the point of being nearly unreadable. A deft reader can sense, from the first page, just how much Ward wants to dazzle with her language—and there are certainly moments where she does—but it feels as if the only motivation and purpose of Salvage the Bones is to demonstrate that Jesmyn Ward can write sentences. She never uses one simile when she can use three. She mixes three, four, five metaphors in one paragraph. I'm really amazed that nobody at Bloomsbury's editorial department objected to a manuscript that is, on a sentence level, replete with overwrought language and trying so desperately to impress. As far as the plot itself goes, not very much happens. It's anticipating Hurricane Katrina for ten chapters—chapters that make such meaningless activities as stealing from the neighbors a twenty-page exercise—and then the storm and its aftermath in the final 30 pages. And I wish I could say what Ward lacked in control and restraint in her language she made up for elsewhere, but it isn't so. For example: the heavy-handedness of the juxtaposition between China's recent birth and Esch's recent pregnancy is a drum that Ward never tires of banging; indeed she's banging it in the last sentence.
What frustrates me most—the issue of the problematic, self-satisfied, showboating language notwithstanding—is the many missed narrative opportunities in Salvage. The novel has within it the possibility to occasion a sincere and thoughtful look at the root and reason of the Mississippi Gulf Coast's systemic poverty, especially in the face of a natural disaster like Katrina that only served to magnify the area's indigence. I’m not sure a better premise exists in which to interrogate and analyze the economic condition of a place whose culture is so imbued with financial strife. And though Ward illustrates the poverty faced by Esch and her family anecdotally throughout the novel over and over again, I never felt she fully communicated that what Hurricane Katrina, as it neared closer with every chapter, threatened to destroy was a community already destroyed, dismantled, disenfranchised, and disenchanted by pre-existing conditions having nothing to do with natural disaster. In order for Ward to fully achieve her intention of educating those who marginalized the communities she’s interested in—communities that are unequivocally shaped and determined by that marginalization, so much so that it’s impossible and incomplete to leave out this disenfranchisement in any discussion of the region—she needed to have included some context for it, rather than hoping the illustrations of poverty—the pauper fantasia—would somehow impart this lesson on its own.
Books like this are the hardest for me to review. They stir up complex feelings that I can’t really articulate and maybe don’t even fully understand yet. Jesmyn Ward is such an evocative writer and one of the best in her field. There’s not a word out a place; every paragraph is finely crafted perfection.
The story centers on Esch, a 15 year-old girl living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, with her three brothers and father. Salvage the Bones follows their lives in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, and ends right after the storm has.
There’s a lot at play here. Esch’s family experiences the common tragedy of American poverty. You can see this disparity in their respective preparations for the hurricane. Only the people who have the means to flee do; the rest are forced to hunker down and try to bear it. One of the most affecting things about the characters in this novel is how their community comes together in difficult circumstances. It’s tough not to be moved during those interactions.
Esch’s brothers love her, but fail to see a direct line between how they and their friends treat girls and how their sister is then treated. In some senses, after their mother died they also lost their father. Yes he’s alive, but much of the responsibilities seem to fall onto the oldest (Randall) and the only girl (Esch).
This is not going to be a book for everyone, but that’s alright. There isn’t a ton that ‘happens’ in the first half to two-thirds or so outside of China, Skeetah’s pit bull, having puppies and everything associated with that. It’s a lot of character development where things left unsaid end up hitting you the hardest. I don’t think I’ll read another book like this until I pick up Ward’s follow-up, Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Also—apparently Jesmyn Ward only got $20k for this? Roxane Gay was outraged, therefore so am I. >:[
Salvage the Bones is a simple, yet powerful story about a poor black family living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. The story is broken into twelve chapters - the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.
The narrator is fifteen year old Esch. Much of the story centers around her coming of age - being motherless and among all males. Esch is living in poverty (on a junkyard called The Pit) with a father who drinks too much, one brother raising a pit bull for fighting, and two other brothers as they brace for the hurricane in their path - each living with challenges of their own. This is a story about familial love - each doing the best they can, living in wretched conditions and the lengths they will go to protect and sacrificing for one another.
Knowing that the author, Jesmyn Ward, lived through Hurricane Katrina makes the story even more meaningful to me. Having just left New Orleans the week before Katrina hit, I sat watching it all on television in disbelief and terrible sadness. I couldn't fathom why these people didn't evacuate. This story really opened my eyes - and my heart! For so many, they had no choice. They had no where to go; no way to leave. Ward answers a lot of these question and gives her own account of those days during Hurricane Katrina. She also write about pit bulls, as her family owned one that was meaningful to her.
I absolutely love Ward’s style of writing. The lyrical, poetic prose she uses awakens all my senses when reading a book and adds so much depth. Maybe that’s not always a pleasant thing....as there are a lot of unsavory moments in the book. Others have not always been as successful at this style of writing for me, but I find her to use it brilliantly. I found myself pausing numerous times just to visualize and re-read her words. Just lovely, even in this savage situation. Ward says she used the word Salvage in the title because it sounded so much like savage, "to remind readers what this family, and people like this family, are left with after tragedy."
These characters, and their story, will stay with me a long, long while!!
*There are some horrific animal scenes in this book - one I admit to skimming heavily. This was a Traveling Sisters read and some could not finish the book due to them, so be forewarned. I am not sure I find these scenes necessary, so I took off a half star for that. I can only think Ward wanted us to see that we should not judge pit bulls anymore than we should judge those who were not able to evacuate the hurricane. Possibly, that was her message?
Este libro nunca podría ser ni mi amante ni un gran amigo, como mucho un conocido agradable, aunque algo tristón.
Y esta tontería viene a que, aunque sinceramente pienso que hay motivos de sobra para que esta obra guste a muchos, no es mala novela, no es mi tipo de novela. Demasiado meliflua para mi gusto, no ha sido capaz de remover nada dentro de mí, sea por dolor o por gozo… y eso que hubo momentos, varios, en los que parecía que… pero no, al final solo eran gases.
Pandemic Time means a chance to read those books on my home library shelves that have been collecting dust for years, which I just never seemed to be in the right mood to take on or felt any urgency to read; there have always too many coming at me from the library that demanded attention.
So I'm late coming to the table with Jesmyn Ward. But she hardly needs my imprimatur! What an extraordinarily gifted writer.
Salvage the Bones uses the looming threat of Hurricane Katrina as a plot foundation, but this isn't so much a storm encounter-and-survival story as it is a tale of rural poverty in contemporary America. It is bleak, violent, grim, and ripe with Southern gothic sorrow, but Ward saves the characters from stereotypes with her graceful and confident writing and the main character's fierce voice and unflinching perspective.
The family Ward creates — 15-year-old motherless Esch and her three brothers, their embittered and lonely father, and the network of friends who roam in and out of their rural Mississippi homestead — are not ennobled by their struggle or survival. They are simply and powerfully human and this is simply and powerfully their story.
This was a difficult read during a difficult time. Nothing uplifting or transporting here; in fact, I finished Salvage the Bones with a sense of despair and hopelessness. Yet the writing, and even the story itself, are exquisite with rawness, vulnerability, realism and intelligence. Jesmyn Ward is deserving of the awards and accolades she has received. She is a Faulkner and Morrison for new generations of readers.
It is so exciting when I read a book that I know will be with me forever. Salvage the Bones seemed at first to be in the same vein as Beans of Egypt, Maine, Bastard Out of Carolina, or The Book of Ruth. *Except* the overall effect is quite different. Instead of violence and desperation Jesmyn Ward gives us sweetness, beauty, and anticipation. Her writing is gorgeous (as one of the characters is racing through the woods his legs are described as looking like black ribbons) and the story is a timeless one: familial love and allegiance and impending doom/disaster (in this case, the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina). The way that Esch and her brothers love and nurture one another gives the reader a sense of optimism. And the use of Greek mythology to examine Esch's experiences and relationships is absolute.
Unfortunately, I couldn't finish this one. The writing was beautiful and it was a story of family which I love. This was a case of I should have read the synopsis. Sometimes I skip those so I can be surprised but the dog fighting and sick puppies were too much for me. I tried skipping those parts on the audio but I ended up having to skip too often. I will definitely read other books by this author because I like her style.
I started the book not impressed and ended the book not impressed. I wasn't blown away by Ward's writing, which I did not find poetic or beautiful (Kundera is my standard for breathtaking prose). However, the story line is solid and Ward tries to give an acute portrayal of the twelve days leading up to Katrina for the Batiste family.
There are many reasons this novel didn't work. For one, Ward fails in many key descriptions. While she can minutely detail the beauty of the woods, in other areas, such as when the house is filling with water and the Batiste family needs to jump branch to branch to get to another house, her scenic words leave me confused and bewildered. How is that even possible? Why did Esch's dad push her? How were they not sucked away by the swirling currents but saved by a random tree (why is the tree not uprooted and itself lost in the whirlpool)? Secondly, while the book is set in the modern era (2005), Ward writes in such a way that is reminiscent of older, bygone times. She uses language and imagery I can see in Uncle Tom's Cabin but I find hard to believe exists in our world today--particularly because she never provides the context and background that, as a reader, I need in order to situate and conceptualize myself in the work.
Lastly, the characters are so disappointing. As the main voice, Esch is a rather passive perspective. She sleeps with men she doesn't want to sleep with because it's easier to and she rarely shows her steely personality. It's incredibly hard for me to relate to Esch, despite her unrequited love, her coming of age, and her blossoming motherhood. She is a juxtaposition of contradictions: an incredibly smart, mature beyond her years tween reading Medea in her free time to a blundering, shifty, timid, and insecure child; I can't figure out who Esch is. This is in part to Ward's ill-advised use of Esch as the narrator--Esch is Ward's sole channel of expression but still has a character role to fulfill in the story. Randall and daddy Batiste aren't given much personality or focus and Junior is incredibly irritating, slightly twisted, and always lingering in the shadows. Either way, the only winner is Skeetah and China, and what Ward captures with these two is a wondrous love between man and dog that even Katrina can't destroy.
“China sta rantolando. Ogni volta che espira le esce un latrato sordo e pesante come una sberla. Il rumore arriva dal bosco, e quando mi affaccio alla porta sul retro mi sembra che si stia avvicinando, e mi aspetto di vederla emergere dagli alberi con Skeetah al suo fianco, e invece no. Vedo soltanto la giornata, più calda della precedente, densa come acqua sul punto di bollire. E poi il suono si diffonde come un contagio. Ci sono altri cani nei boschi vicini, dall'altra parte della Fossa, in fondo alla strada serpeggiante e ghiaiosa, e abbaiano tutti con lei. La circondano come un coro. I richiami riempiono il cielo, risuonano ovunque, tutti insieme. Da qualche parte in mezzo a quella cagnara, ne sono sicura, c'è Skeetah che li chiama a sé tutti quanti. È la mano che tiene il guinzaglio. È il palmo. Quando tira si avvicinano, quando allenta la presa si disperdono tra i pini, la terra rossa, i ruscelli, le querce. Ululano. Sbuffano. China lancia un grido potente, e all'improvviso tacciono tutti”.
Esch, ragazzina cuore di femmina, suo padre e i suoi tre fratelli, con i loro amici, vivono a Bois Sauvage, nel bayou sul delta del Mississippi, pieno South rurale americano, ecosistema di canali, paludi, cipressi e palme, azalee, buganvillee, glicini; è l'estate 2005, i giovani ragazzi attendono l'arrivo e il passaggio di Katrina, uno degli uragani più distruttivi della storia. Esch e i suoi sono afroamericani e sono poverissimi, il padre è depresso e alcolista, la madre è morta di parto alla nascita del piccolo Junior (che gioca e salta curioso di ogni cosa), lasciando i cari tra amore e dolore; il maggiore, Randall, gioca a basket e cerca con lo sport di aprirsi le porte del college, Skeetah invece, secondo protagonista della storia, è primordiale e istintivo e nutre una passione smisurata per il suo cane, una femmina di pitbull di nome China, cane da combattimento che ha appena avuto la prima cucciolata. La scelta di Jesmyn Ward di marcare nel testo la concreta vicinanza tra questi giovani esseri umani affamati e pieni di desiderio e i loro cani, che nel sangue e nella durezza lottano, suggerisce un'interpretazione a un certo livello politica, nel senso originario del termine: in determinate condizioni il territorio stesso diviene luogo di un conflitto naturale, di una lotta inevitabile tra individui e comunità, tra compagni e rivali, tra soggetti e ambiente. Vivono nella Fossa i Batiste, un avallamento di terreno e argilla rossa in una radura, tra edifici in rovina e baracche di legno. Esch si prende cura di tutti, è innamorata di Manny, miglior amico del fratello, che però ha una ragazza più grande, legge di Medea e gli Argonauti ed è rimasta incinta; è innocente e selvaggia, vivace, coraggiosa e libera, ha imparato a sopravvivere con l'istinto e l'acutezza e ora porta con sé una nuova esistenza. I boschi intorno alla località ospitano scoiattoli e conigli, cervi, lupi e volpi; ovunque gli alberi proteggono ogni cosa. L'esistenza scorre contraria, lei non vuole cedere alla disperazione, al senso di vuoto; la sventura è narrata da Ward nella fisicità delle aspirazioni, nella corporeità dei sentimenti. Si leggono scene di nuda crudeltà, di sapore arcaico, e troviamo il senso tragico del destino, l'umanità vulnerabile alla potenza della natura, la vita sconvolta dal caos degli eventi e sempre sospesa nell'attesa, nel non essere, nel mancare. Jesmyn Ward descrive come la tempesta ha trasformato la sua terra: Ci ha lasciato un mare di buio e una terra bruciata dal sale. Ci ha lasciati qui perché impariamo a camminare da soli. A salvare ciò che possiamo. La lingua figurativa della Ward è ipnotica e forte nell'evocare, mimetica nella tendenza creola e in quella classica, illumina l'orizzonte narrativo e metaforico di luce obliqua e incerta. Le atmosfere ricordano un film indimenticabile, Beasts of the Southern Wild di Benh Zeitlin. Il romanzo di Jesmyn Ward ha vinto il National Book Award nel 2011 e premiato dal medesimo riconoscimento nel 2017 è di prossima pubblicazione Sing, Unburied, Sing.
“Allora strofino, sfrego via come posso l'amore per Manny, l'odio per Manny, Manny. Esco dal fosso e scaccio le formiche, perché è l'unica cosa che posso fare. Seguo Randall intorno alla casa, perché è l'unica cosa che posso fare; se questo significa essere forte o debole non lo so, ma è quello che faccio. Mi viene il singhiozzo, eppure le lacrime continuano a scendere. Dopo la morte di mamma, papà aveva detto: Cosa piangete a fare? Smettetela di piangere. Piangere non cambia niente. Ma noi non avevamo smesso di piangere. Solo, lo facevamo in silenzio. Ci andavamo a nascondere. Avevo imparato a piangere senza quasi versare lacrime, ingoiando l'acqua calda e salata e sentendola scorrere giù per la gola. Non potevamo fare altro. E così ingoio, aguzzo gli occhi tra le lacrime e mi metto a correre”.