Salvage The Bones
- Jesmyn Ward
- Bloomsbury USA
- 272 pp.
- September 1, 2011
Raw and lyrical, this follow-up to an acclaimed debut novel revisits a poor black Gulf Coast community on the eve of Hurricane Katrina.
Reviewed by Anthony Grooms
Jesmyn Ward’s second novel, Salvage the Bones, revisits fictional Bois Sauvage, an impoverished African-American community on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast that is the setting for her acclaimed debut, Where the Line Bleeds. Both novels are to be admired for the author’s portrayal, in highly lyrical language, of the gritty lives of the rural poor. Ward, a Stegner fellow and finalist for the Hurston Wright Legacy Award, demonstrates extraordinary promise for both style and subject matter. She is a writer-of-conscience of the kind we see too few of these days.
Salvage the Bones is told in the voice of Esch Baitiste, a pregnant, tomboyish teenager whose lover will not even look at her as they have sex in a toilet stall. Esch is the only girl in a family of boys, and her world, as the name of the town suggests, is isolated and savage. Her mother is dead and her father is an alcoholic. Their homestead is called “The Pit.” Ward’s language teases out the inherent violence of this place — both physical and psychological — in brutal details; red, black and white dominate the color scheme of the novel as do references to meat, sweat and blood.
As a narrator, rendering the story in the present tense, Esch is observant, poetic and often given to reminiscing about her mother who died in childbirth. She tells a boy-and-his-dog story about her brother Skeetah and his pit bull, China, raised for dog fighting. Esch as a character moves the reader to sympathy, but it is Skeetah who drives the story. Determined, proud, reckless and slightly enigmatic, he steals, fights and risks his life to save China and her pups.
As a narrator, Esch seems too limited for the story the novel wants to tell. At the beginning of the novel, while China delivers her pups, the children’s father, Claude Baitiste, is busy preparing for the onslaught of what would be known as Hurricane Katrina. The novel is organized as a countdown to the coming of the storm, and though the storm is as devastating as readers would expect from a Category 5 hurricane, it could have been any hurricane. Except for one ironic mention of FEMA, the story does not address the issues of neglect of the poor that has made Katrina iconic.
For the most part, Ward’s lyricism is fresh and sharp, but on some occasions it risks stalling the narrative in a mishmash of simile that undermines rather than strengthens the voice. In one paragraph, which describes a dog chasing the narrator, the dog’s bark is compared to “a shovel dragged along asphalt wearing away to stones,” his color to a storm, his running to a combustion engine. As if that weren’t enough, the dog’s owner is rendered in the same paragraph in a series of figures of speech. The effect is vivid, but cluttered, and restraint would have been better. Further, Esch’s voice is sophomoric, as she shifts between vernacular and allusions to classical Greek literature, in particular the story of Jason and Medea. The allusion pushes for allegory as several times the classical characters are paired with characters in the story. But what is meant by these comparisons is unclear — it seems to have something to do with motherhood and betrayal, for both the dog and for Esch. This allusion is too much for the story and muddles its language and imagery.
On the other hand, when the story turns dramatic the reader is swept up in the tense rawness of its action. There are scenes of dog fights, for instance, in which the reader is absorbed even while being repulsed by the descriptions of bared teeth and tearing flesh. Likewise, in the climatic scene in which the hurricane’s winds and waters threaten the characters, the language is efficient and the action is present.
Though poor, Ward’s characters strive to achieve dreams that might improve their lives. Though theirs is a violent and oppressive world, and in the end, they lose all of the little they have, this story is not fatalistic. In this, Ward seems to suggest something positive about her own background as she was raised and still lives on the Gulf Coast. Hers is a voice we must listen to.
Anthony Grooms is the author of Trouble No More: Stories and Bombingham: A Novel, both winners of the Lillian Smith Prize for Fiction. Bombingham was a finalist for the Hurston Wright Legacy Award. For more information go to www.AnthonyGrooms.com.