Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: A review

Back in October, I read Jesmyn Ward's latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing, set in the Mississippi Gulf Coast town of Bois Sauvage and the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. It occurred to me then that I had never read this earlier book, also set in Bois Sauvage, also a National Book Award winner. Ward seems to be making a habit of that.

I thought the book I read in October was amazing, but, if anything, this one is even better. It certainly packs even more of an emotional wallop. At least it did for me. I found that I could more easily empathize with these characters.

The story centers around the Batiste family, a dirt poor - literally - African-American family living on land on the bayou outside of Bois Sauvage inherited from grandparents. The family comprises a widowed father, three sons, and a daughter. Our main protagonist, the one whose eyes we look through, is the daughter, Esch. She is the third child of the family, now fourteen years old. The difficult birth of her younger brother, called Junior, resulted in the death of the wife and mother of the Batiste family and left it bereft. The father has become a heavy drinker and the children are mostly in charge of bringing themselves up. Nevertheless, this poor family is rich in love and caring for each other, as we will learn in the twelve days covered by this novel. 

It is late August 2005. The Gulf Coast is weighed down by oppressive heat and a sense of dread. It has been an active season for tropical storms and now another one has made its way into the Gulf from the Atlantic and is gathering strength in the warm waters there. Esch's father is concerned about the coming storm and is doing his best to prepare. He is old enough to remember the killer Camille that devastated the area in late August 1969. People who remember still talk about it and the Batiste children have grown up hearing those stories from their parents.

The sense of foreboding grows day by day as weather forecasters report that the storm is intensifying, but meantime, the Batiste children continue with their daily lives. Esch's oldest brother, Randall, is a gifted basketball player and is preoccupied with trying out for a basketball camp. The second brother Skeetah (Jason) cares only for his pit bull fighting dog, a bitch called China who gives birth to five puppies as the novel begins. Skeetah hopes to earn his fortune with this animal. Junior is a child, only concerned with play. But Esch has suddenly taken on some very adult concerns.

Esch started having sex with her brothers' friends when she was twelve years old, because it was easier to let them do what they wanted than it was to resist. She was a child. She didn't know she could say no. Now, at age fourteen, she realizes she is pregnant. What can she do? She is trapped.

Esch is such an interesting character. She loves literature. At one point, she recounts that in the previous year, her class had read William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and that she was the only one in the class who understood Vardaman's one sentence chapter, "My mother is a fish." She is very proud of that. Moreover, she is now obsessed with Greek myths and keeps a volume under her mattress to read in bed. She particularly likes the story of Medea. She identifies with her because Medea had a brother named Jason, too. Reading all of this, truly, one's heart breaks for this child.

All of these concerns, though, are suddenly forgotten or at least pushed aside. Katrina has landed.

I read the last two chapters of this book, which cover the coming of the storm and its aftermath, in a blur of tears. The Batiste family's experience was that of so many thousands of others. They never thought the waters would reach as far as their home, but then water comes sloshing through the floorboards and over the doorsills. And it keeps rising. They seek refuge in their attic. The water rises with them and threatens to drown them there, but they escape through a hole in the roof, helping each other, clinging together, refusing to leave anyone behind. Even the dog.

This is harrowing reading, as is another section earlier in the book that describes the violence and cruelty of dog fights. A writer who can make poetry of the brutality of dog-fighting and of a monstrous killer storm is, as a famous spider would have written in her web, "Some writer!" Jesmyn Ward is some writer.

After the storm is over and the Batistes are still alive, Esch picks up shards left in its wake.
“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.” 
Yes. Yes. Yes!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. Powerful review of a powerful novel, Dorothy! I bought Sing, Unburied, Sing on audio book. I don't know when I'll get to it, possibly not this year, but I'll make a note to read this book as well.

    1. I hope that when you read it you will find it as moving as I did. Hers is the best and truest description of what it is like before, during, and after a monster hurricane that I have read. And these characters really get into your blood.

  2. Great review of a great novel. When I first read it, I had a problem with the clash of voices: all the rest of the family in a sort of patois but Esch's voice sounding so literary. I guess it messed with my stereotypes. Now that I have seen Jesmyn Ward being interviewed, learned her incredible story of rising to a two time National Book Award winner, and read Sing,Unburied, Sing, I get it. A person can be many things and have many voices.

    1. Esch is certainly an exceptional child in so many ways and her love of literature gives her an exceptional voice.

  3. Hi Dorothy, thanks for the reviews. But I suspect it is almost time for you to read soemthing uplifting and positive??? Cheers

    1. I actually found this one quite uplifting in spite of the sad subject matter. It is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of a family's love.


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