“You have to read this book.” That message seemed to be everywhere – book bloggers, critical reviews, National Book Award, my own mother. The novel’s description contains all elements I love – young female narrator, brutal circumstances, rural setting. I was not at all put off by the constant warnings of savage and emotional. In fact, those are the very words I used to describe some of my favorite books (Once Upon a River, Girlchild or Ten Thousand Saints). But I continued to put off reading this book, until my mother finally put the paperback edition into my hands and said, “Read this. You’ll love it.”
My mom is rarely wrong, but for the first half of this book, I could not engage with the story or the characters. Set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, we meet Esch, 14 years-old, pregnant and the only female in a world of a drunken father, 3 brothers and a group of male “friends” with whom she has sex indiscriminately. As we follow her story, we also meet her brother Skeetah, determined to raise his prized pit bull’s new litter to bring their family money through dog-fighting.
I know I’m supposed to love the savage beauty of all of this, but I could not find the emotional pulse. I was sad for Ech and her circumstances, but not heartbroken because I didn’t connect with her. Despite the lyrical prose, I did not feel the impending peril of the hurricane.
I really think I missed something because it wasn’t until 100 pages in to the book that I realized Jesmyn Ward was brilliantly crafting a metaphor between Esch’s search for love and Skeetah’s love for his pit bull, China.
To give life…is to know what’s worth fighting for. And that’s love.”
Once I understood what the author was going for, I fell into this novel hard and finished the rest in a day. It could also be that as the storm grew closer, the pace of the action also picked up. All of the strands that Ward has carefully set down before the reader began to unfurl and collide, picking up steam and intensity, just like the storm.
And, ultimately, I was broken-hearted and in awe of Esch and Skeetah as they fought their way through poverty, abandonment and natural calamity.
We never stopped crying. We just did it quieter. We hid it. I learned how to cry so that almost no tears leaked out of my eyes, so that I swallowed the hot salty water of them and felt them running down my throat. This was the only thing we could do. I swallow and squint through the tears, and I run.”
I still think that “Savage Bones” would be a more appropriate title than “Salvage the Bones.” Jesmyn Ward never lets up or backs off, which I admire. She also writes a perfectly fitting ending, so rare and brave.
Ultimately, this novel does not make my “You must read this book” list, but I get the attention and critical acclaim. They are well deserved.
NOTE: I’m not sure I could recommend this book to any animal lovers, given its brutal depictions of dog-fighting.
If you’re looking for a young girl clawing her way out of a brutal life, Girlchild for fiction and Liar’s Club or The Glass Castle for memoirs.
If you want a good personal story about Katrina, I recommend Zeitoun.
- 2011 National Book Award went to Jesmyn Ward (eneryvibes.wordpress.com)
- Drawn back home: Jesmyn Ward has lived all over but always returns to DeLisle, Miss. (kansascity.com)