Thursday, December 6, 2012

Literary Bite: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is really unique in style, story, and subject, and I loved it. It’s about a poor family in Mississippi, told over the course of the 12 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.
  • “She left us as 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.” (255)
The main character, Esch, is a poor pregnant 15-year-old, surviving with her three brothers and alcoholic father in a bayou town. The theme of family loyalty is strong throughout the book – the siblings take care of each other in the best ways they can. None of them are perfect and Esch is not the stereotypical heroine, which makes it all feel so real.

The prose is all in the present tense, giving the story a tempo and sense of urgency paralleling the actual urgency in the lead-up to the storm. Some say that Ward over does it with her lyrical prose (“Ward can get carried away. She never uses one metaphor when she can use three, and too many sentences grow waterlogged and buckle.”) but I loved that part of it. The descriptions are visceral and the language is beautiful – parts read almost like poetry, and some sentences I liked so much I re-read them to myself out loud.
  • "We slither like snakes, grab dirt and pine straw with our elbows, and pull. Skeetah stops often, straw and twigs sliding off his slick head to catch on his shoulders like holiday tinsel, and he listens. I stop, too, try my hardest to be so still, to hear the threat, but the blood beats through my ears so strongly I cannot hear anything over that and the whooshing of my breath. Skeetah crawls through a stand, and we start again." (69-70)
  • "Maybe the small don't run. Maybe the small pause on their branches, the pine-lined earth, nose up, catch that coming storm air that would smell like salt to them, like salt and clean burning fire, and they prepare like us."(215-216)
A huge part of the book is the love between Esch’s brother Skeetah and his pit bull, China. I know nothing about dog fighting (other than it’s bad), and reading about the culture of dog fights between friends, enemies, and the honor and pride involved was fascinating. What surprised me most was how much the owners loved their dogs – they fight them, but they also love them. Skeetah’s struggle to care for China and her puppies really carried the whole story.
  • "China is as white as the sand that will become a pearl, Skeetah black as an oyster, but they stand as one before these boys who do not know what it means to love a dog the way that Skeetah does." (162)
Definitely read this book. It is GREAT. Also, just after I finished Salvage the Bones, I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie about a girl and her father as a hurricane approaches their Louisiana bayou community (it’s on NetFlix and On Demand). It is heartbreaking and beautiful and also SO GOOD. (If you watch it, pay attention to the soundtrack because it is excellent.)

Oh and here's a good interview with Ward about how she approached writing about the controversial issues addressed in the book.