Nature, Nurture and a Nightmare: A Review of Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Using elements of the weather woven in with the myth of Medea, Jesmyn Ward tells a gripping story of a troubled family’s attempts of preparation and then at survival in the days previous to and just after Hurricane Katrina.

The novel opens with the family dog, China giving birth to her puppies in a detailed, graphic, prolonged sequence. Sometime after that, Esch, a 15 year old motherless girl living in a male-populated household, realises that she’s going to be a mother herself and that the father of the baby won’t even look at her.

Esch lives with her three brothers and a mostly absent father in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, a town seemingly at the edge of the world in a poor, backward community, a dilapidated home with contaminated water supply and Top Ramen as the only food, brutal dog fights and a sweltering weather. This is a story that is hurtful to read, and difficult to comprehend in that it’s so far out of our focus of comfortable existence. But it’s also the universal story of familial love; the siblings constantly scuffle, scrape, steal and sacrifice for each other, making beauty co-exist with the ugly.

This is a bunch that seems stoic and strong, but they may just as easily be resigned to the forces of fate. There are no options available to them, no choice in any matter, nothing more than either submit or not to what life offers them, which is not much. Hope is not something they even dare to think about.

Even though Katrina breaks out in full force in only the last two chapters, the prose breathes the hurricane weather in and out of every chapter – through rain, incessant heat, choking humidity, the lull of the air and then a blowing wind that brings hardly any relief, only an inkling of a disaster to come.

When the storm finally recedes, their world, stood suddenly unmade, ‘’tree by water by house by person.’’

With all material possessions washed away, what can they salvage, if anything at all?

The mythical Medea ropes in the central theme of the novel – motherhood. Esch comprehends the concept bit by bit as she draws comparisons between Medea to Katrina, China and herself, which is far-fetched and mostly unconvincing. These are, however, the three forces of nature that helps her prepare for what’s to come.  It is through them that she learns what it is to love, nurture, protect and fight for what is yours.

My second Jesmyn Ward novel, and I’m beginning to see a pattern; her stories are brutal, and she sets off on that tone right from the start with a grisly event, but the voice she employs is always lyrical, and the mingling of the both results in something like magic. What adds to the indelibility of this novel is its perfect pace with hardly ever a boring moment.

Salvage the Bones was, however, not as brilliant as Sing, Unburied, Sing. Most of that is owing to under-developed characters and unfinished storylines, in my opinion. But it is an important story … These tragedies are so easily forgotten with time, the next disaster takes focus, but for those who survive them, it is a constant source of nightmares. Hats off for Ward’s brave attempt despite the horrid recollections that surely surfaced during the writing of this novel.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Michael says:

    Great review! I enjoyed reading your thoughts, though I’ll probably pass on this as I found the same problems (underdeveloped storylines/characterization) in another of Ward’s early works, her memoir Men We Reaped. The book moved too quickly for me to ever feel fully immersed in the setting.


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