Sunday, October 5, 2014

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

 A family comes under intense pressures in the days before Hurricane Katrina

Fourteen year old Esch lives in the backwoods of coastal Mississippi with her family, which consists of a drunken widowed father, and three brothers: basketball playing Randall, pit bull loving Skeetah and seven year old Junior. The story begins with dad haphazardly urging the kids to prepare for the hurricane by having them fill jars with water and stock up on extra boxes of Ramen noodles. All the children except for Junior have their own high-stakes problems. First of all, classically educated Esch is coming to the understanding that she is pregnant. She’s had many sexual partners among her brothers’ friends although she is certain the father is Manny, a boy she loves who cares nothing for her. Meanwhile, Skeetah’s beloved dog, China, just birthed a litter of puppies. Skeetah desperately tries to keep the small blind puppies alive, and ward off the fatal infection parvo. But one by one, the dogs sicken and Skeetah gets desperate for pricey medicine. Randall dreams of entry to an exclusive basketball camp, dependent upon his good behavior and more to the point, the good behavior of his family. Their dreams are jeopardized by their own choices, and finally by the impending chaos of Katrina. The storm comes, the floods roll in and the desperate family escapes to the roof of their house.

Wow, what great writing. This book really succeeds at world creation. I was completely sucked into the narrative, the stakes for each character rising each humid day before the storm.  Ward plunges the reader into Esch’s intense bloodily violent world and never lets up. The Michael Vick situation became a lot clearer – pit bull fights deep in the woods gives the boys' circumscribed lives meaning. The plotting is clever – each family member’s desires and motivations are depicted in painful snatches, just enough to carry the action along.

Although I have no idea what the title means – the bones coming out of the flooded graveyard? And, every so often, Esch likens her love situation to Medea’s, which jarred a little as the insertions didn’t feel seamless. There were also an awful lot of boys, between Esch’s brothers and her sex partners -- I started to get them mixed up. There’s a great flood scene at the end, which reminded me of other great flood scenes from Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jayne Anne Phillips's Lark and Termite. There’s nothing like a good flood scene to get everything out on the table.

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