Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and it was after that announcement and after reading the synopsis that I decided this was a book worth covering, even if I ended up not liking it. Also, it is important to me to find books by modern African-African writers beyond Toni Morrison...who is brilliant...I am so not discounting her talent, there is just a lot more out there in the way of African-American fiction than we realize.
The Situation: Esch lives with her father and three brothers in little more than a shack in modern day Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Since her mother died eight years ago after the birth of her younger brother, Junior, her father stays in a perpetual state between being drunk and being hungover. Skeetah lives his life taking care of the family dog that really only likes him, and oldest brother Randall walks the line of playing basketball with friends with the entire on playing for a college, and taking care of his family where his father no longer will. The shack is in a constant state of disrepair, and while the family manages to stay fed and alive, they do so by stealing or by salvaging materials from nearby houses that have long been abandoned or destroyed. For the most part, Esch is the only female in the novel as she hangs out with her older brother's friends. The novel covers ten days before and a few days after...
The Problem: ...Hurricane Katrina. From almost the beginning the storm is coming and slowly gaining strength, and the only one who seems to understand the situation is Daddy, but being too drunk or hungover most of the time, he doesn't get much done. So most of the preparations fall to the three oldest children. But Skeetah only seems to have true concern for his dog, China, and her newly born puppies. Before he makes any move to take care of anyone else, Skeetah always makes sure China is taken care of first, something that understandably frustrates the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Esch realizes that she too is pregnant, and at the young age of 14. Soon, Katrina arrives in full force, and the only way to find out if they are ready is to let the storm run her course.
Genre, Themes, History: This is powerful African-American fiction that culminates in one of the greatest natural disasters to ever come upon a North American coast. There are general themes of poverty, survival, community, family, and even animal abuse. I am going to go ahead and say that this book involves dog fighting, so if you're sensitive to the plight of our lovable four-legged friends, you may not want to read this novel. I believe the issue is handled well and delicately, but it is also handled honestly.
Also, throughout the novel, Esch likens her situation to that of the Greek mythological figure of Medea. Esch draws the comparisons mostly in regards to her pregnancy and the father, but she finds links during other events as well.
My Verdict: I was not sure what to expect from this book, and while I was extremely frustrated and disappointed by the time I got to the middle, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased once I reached the end. For the majority of the story, I had the same problem with this novel that I do with Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While I acknowledge Huck Finn as a great American masterpiece, I don't personally care for the book. The first time I read it I just kept waiting for Huck and Jim to get off of that damned river...and then I realized that the book was all about the journey on the river. Then the duke and king show up. Then they leave only to be replaced by the agonizing presence of Tom Sawyer. With Salvage the Bones, it is the presence of China, Skeetah's dog, that gets to me. But really, it isn't necessarily China's presence that is frustrating so much as how Skeetah treats her. I love dogs, but Ward's novel presents the issue of people who care for them more than they do human beings (although sometimes I get it). Even with the impending presence of a category 5 hurricane, Skeetah makes sure China is taken care of first. And yet, while he will expend all of this energy looking after her and loving on her, he still subjects her to dog-fighting...a practice that gives bragging rights to the one who isn't in the ring getting their faces bitten off and their throats ripped out. Yeah, I'm going to have a problem with that. But as I said before, Ward handles it well, and the ending brings all of these issues together in a workable conclusion that does not feel slapped together.
Favorite Moment: This is a hard novel in the sense that a lot of it is dealing with some heavy stuff and hard situations. All of the moments I think of that resonated with me aren't exactly pleasant and not ones I would necessarily pick out to read to a mixed crowd.
Favorite Character: Either Randall or Big Henry. Maybe it is because he is the oldest, but Randall steps in where his father cannot...and he has to do it a lot. He's level-headed and calm, and serves as the voice of reason this family desperately needs. Big Henry is the friend of the family that acts more like blood family than some of the actual family. Esch describes him as the biggest member of the group of friends, but he is the most gentle and graceful, and often tries to keep the peace.
Recommended Reading: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston. I couldn't help but think of it because it also involves a hurricane and a community's fight to survive the storm.