Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones

Bloomsbury, $35.00

During the course of this novel, set over 12 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, Esch, a teenager living in wretched poverty with three brothers and an alcoholic father, discovers she’s pregnant. Her brother’s pitbull, a champion of illegal dogfighting, has just delivered her first litter of puppies. And Hurricane Katrina is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico nearby.

The lack of opportunity in these kids’ lives is heartbreaking. Esch’s mother died giving birth to her youngest brother, a waif desperate for attention. Her other brothers struggle, and one only shows affection to his violent dog. Her father, when he is around, is drunk and occasionally abusive. Esch has sex with a creep who will barely touch her with his hands, let alone kiss her. She thinks she loves him.

So far, so ugly. Yet this is one beautiful book, a captivating read. It is no wonder it has just been listed as a finalist in America’s National Book Award.

As muscly as Esch’s brothers, as muscly as China the fierce pit bull, Salvage the Bones’ heroes and villains mirror the dramas of the Greek myth that captivates Esch. Medea – a Greek sorceress who murders her children to punish her husband for taking another bride – is the dog China, a brutal mother. Medea is Hurricane Katrina.

This story belongs to some of those worst affected by hurricane Katrina, the impoverished African American communities of Mississippi’s gulf towns. Lean bones of prose plumped with adroit metaphor make it a future classic. I dare you to put it down during the final three chapters.


Reviewed October 2011