Book Review Time: Salvage The Bones

I was 15 years old when Hurricane Andrew hit the southeastern coast of Florida. It hadn’t been forecasted to take the path that it did. But if you know anything about hurricanes, you know that they have minds of their own, and often buck predictability. Days before that strange and terrifying evening, we assumed that, worst case scenario, our community would only face the less serious effects of the outer bands of the storm; maybe some heavy rain and windy conditions. But few predicted the immense danger headed our way. I remember my parents deciding that all of us should stay together during the storm. My sister and I made a bed of blankets and pillows on my parents’ bedroom floor, and settled in for what we assumed would be an uneventful evening. However, my parents’ decision to have us close by, proved to be a fortuitous one, as hours later, a section of the roof, right above the bedroom where I ordinarily slept, was ripped off by winds reaching nearly 170 mph. The next day, as we emerged from what was left of our home, our eyes bore witness to a community in devastation. South Florida looked like a war-zone. Moments like that mark you, especially if you’re young. Any foolish notions of invincibility are swept away by the long arm of Mother Nature. The tenuousness of our reality and how life can change at the drop of a hat becomes all too clear. Reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage The Bones brought me back to that time, almost 28 years ago to the day. The terror of that night still resonates. But what I remember most, about that time, was how it brought our family together. We would all survive.

Salvage The Bones centers around the Batiste Family who reside in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. The story follows the family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina making landfall. We see their lives through the perspective of Esch, the third of 4 children and the sole female in the family (their mother passed away after giving birth to the youngest child). The siblings are very close. They look after each other, taking on responsibilities that their heavy-drinking, emotionally distant father can no longer manage. In spite of their closeness, each sibling has their own separate interests. Randall, the oldest, is consumed with basketball. Skeetah, the second in line, loves his pit bull, China. And Junior, the youngest, can spend hours in the dark space underneath their house, sitting in the dirt. Doing what? No one really knows. So, when Esch discovers she is pregnant, she’s not sure to whom she can turn to for help. Making matters worse, a storm is strengthening in the gulf, and their father’s obsessive need to prepare is heightening tensions. 

Jesmyn Ward has painted a complicated yet nuanced tableau of the rural south and Black American life. This is a world where segregation and poverty visibly exists. There’s no turning away from it. But there is the richness of southern black culture on display as well, along with the whole-hearted belief that better days will come. What the Batiste family lacks in financial wealth, they more than make up for in their die-hard loyalty. And this plays out in various ways throughout the story. We see it in how the siblings interact with each other. We see it in how Skeetah treats his beloved dog, China and her pups. And we see it in Esch’s frequent references to her mother. She brings memories of her mother to life through examining old  photographs, noticing resemblances in her brothers, and even when she studies herself in the mirror, determined to piece together how she came to be. It’s hard not to sympathize with Esch. She is surrounded by men. And unfortunately, she has been prey to some, whom at the first whiff of opportunity, struck. During much of the story, Esch is emotionally lost, and at times, her changing body seems to be fighting against her. Consequently, she finds herself looking for answers from the only mothers around; China, her brother’s nursing pit bull and the mythical character, Medea, who she’s been reading about during the summer. Suffice to say, these are not ideal maternal figures. In time, Esch will discover that she has support, and she’ll learn that not all men are predatory. Many are gentle, kind, and protective. However, the pain of her mother’s absence is unassailable. You can feel it on every page. And you find yourself imagining the many ways their lives could’ve been different, if that guiding light had not been extinguished. It’s the power of motherhood, and this is a story about mothers: soon-to-be mothers, absent mothers, dangerous mothers, loving mothers, and of course, Mother Nature.


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