Enduring a hardscrabble existence as the children of alcoholic and absent parents, four siblings from a coastal Mississippi town prepare their meager stores for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina while struggling with such challenges as a teen pregnancy and a dying litter of prize pups.
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And this is Esch’s story to tell. Her older brother Randall, is hoping desperately for a look from basketball scouts that would assure him a college education and her younger brother Skeetah’s main devotion is to his fighting dog China and her newborn pups, and six year old Junior was last born and all that remains of his mother’s pregnancy, as she died shortly after his birth. Thoughts of their beloved mother are never far from their thoughts as she is missed terribly. Their father vacillates between drunkenness and anger and provides little to no fathering to his brood.
Ward manages to vacillate between grittiness and soulfulness. And brilliantly the narrative fluctuates between thoughtful reflection and driving momentum until the hurricane passes. The prose is poetic but the subject matter, for the most part, is stark and unsentimental. Esch longs for the father of her unborn child, Manny, to love her and dreams of a loving relationship with him but knows, in reality, that will never happen. Randall sees his dreams of a basketball scholarship go up in smoke and Skeetah realizes his chances of having half a dozen pups to sell are diminishing by the minute and he foolishly forces the lactating China to fight. This might be a good time to mention that if you’re squeamish about dog fighting you might want to skip this book. I’m a dog lover and I thought the depiction of China killing her own pup was more disturbing than the dogs fighting, but for others the dog fighting might be too distasteful.
But although this is a book of metaphors and hidden meanings it can certainly be enjoyed on the surface, for what it is: a story about poverty in the rural south during the time of a devastating hurricane. The themes of the nearness of death and the love of brothers are powerful indeed and are presented with distinct aplomb. And the devastation of Katrina will not be forgotten.
”I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”
Esch Batiste is fifteen years old and pregnant: she tries to keep her nausea and ever bursting bladder from her family. Her mother died during the birth of her younger brother Junior, leaving the family to the care of their alcoholic and neglectful father, and the care of Junior has fallen almost exclusively on the older children. The eldest brother Randall is desperate to get the basketball scholarship that will take him out of The Pit, the run-down and scrap covered piece of land where the Batiste family live. The second brother Skeetah lives only for his prized pit bull China, a beautiful white dog who has defeated all the local dogs in the fights run by the local boys. And in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, as the father tries to prepare for the approaching storm, both Esch and Skeetah have their own battles. Skeetah that of trying to keep China's new puppies alive, when he can't afford the medication that they need, while Esch tries to get Manny, her baby's father, to notice her.
I found this book heart-breaking in many respects: these teenagers have been failed by so many people, even ultimately by their own mother, whose refusal to have medical assistance when giving birth to Junior in all likelihood led to her death. Day to day life is such a struggle with little money for food, and less for the hurricane supplies that they desperately need. I found that even Skeetah's fighting of his beloved China became almost understandable: her prowess in fighting provides him with the only thing in his life that he can be proud about.
Not knowing much about the American South outside the period of segregation and civil rights, one thing that surprised me on reading Salvage the Bones was what completely separate lives the Batistes led from their white neighbours. And the conditions in which they lived seemed not to belong to the twenty-first century, or even the late twentieth, but to an earlier period.
So a book that is highly recommended, and one which drew me in almost as if I were reading about real people.
I had originally rated this 4.5 stars because there were a few flaws in it, but going back and re-reading parts and knowing how much I loved this story, it just felt wrong not to give it a full 5. I connected with
Searing. Brutal. Stunning. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Powerful. Painful. Hopeful. I could just string some adjectives together and be done with it, but this book deserves so much more. And I won't do it justice. I will say that putting aside the particular circumstances and specifics of the story - poverty, race, Katrina, dog fighting, neglect and all sorts of other horrors - this book is about family. How we hold it together, depend on it, make it up as we go, and create ones where none exist. All you really need to know is that 15 year old Esch is motherless and pregnant. Those two facts are the bookends of the story - everything else happens within that context. Motherhood can be both beautiful and brutal. Esch has warm memories of her own mother who died when she was eight; now she is pregnant and her only model of what a mother is comes from her brother's fighting pit bull who just birthed a litter of puppies. We want so badly for something good to happen for Esch but she is repeatedly beaten down by both the cruelty of her circumstances and the cruelty of the father of her baby. And then the hurricane comes...
Please read this book.
"When she died, Mama told me that she had gone away, and then I wondered where she went. Because everyone else was crying, I clung like a monkey to Mama, my legs and arms wrapped around her softness, and I cried, love running through me like a hard, blinding summer rain. And then Mama died, and there was no one left for me to hold on to." (page 59)
The dog fight scene about halfway through left my stomach sour and my teeth on edge. It was one of the most painful chapters of a novel that I've ever read. But the story is so beautiful and the writing is exquisite. Describing the dead mother's reaction to catching a shark on a fishing trip: "She coaxed it to death. And when it gave up, she hauled it in and let out a laugh that swooped up into the sky with the pelicans and flew away, wind-ready and wide as their wings." Or describing the woods: "A cloud passes over the sun, and it is dark under the trees. It passes, and the gold melts through the leaves, falls on bark and floor: foil coins." Nice.
If you can manage the vivid description of the dog fight, I highly recommend this moving and powerful novel of family and survival.
I recommend this book highly, but I do have to warn you that there is a chapter about a dog fight that was very difficult for me to read. I think that the intensity of the chapter illustrates the author's skill, but that didn't make it any less difficult to read.
The neglect these characters face is heartbreaking - the children's father has done so little for them since their mother died. At a time when each of his children is in crisis - Randall, the eldest, is trying to earn a scholarship to a basketball camp that could give him a future, Skeetah is straining under the weight of holding the family together, Esch, 14, is pregnant and the father of the baby rejects her cruelly throughout the book, and Junior, 8, is desperate for a parent to protect him. Through all of this, their father drinks around the clock and obsesses over preparing for a Hurricane that will tear through his efforts in seconds when the storm finally comes. He could have put all that energy into helping his children instead.
The failure of the children's father and the father of Esch's baby is contrasted with the almost mythical feats of fatherhood Skeet shows towards his pit bull's litter of puppies. He steals for her and her puppies, nurses all of them, never lets his attention drift from them, lashes their mother to his body when the waters come. Though the book graphically - and positively - depicts dogfighting, which I found morally offensive, I do understand why its here. From a literary perspective, it's a depiction of the strength and power of fatherhood to prepare children for a harsh life - rather than weakness, true fatherhood is the best preparation for the harships of life a child (or pitbull) could possibly get. Skeet is an incredible foil for the failed fathers of Esch and her baby. It's also an unspoken commentary that though the absence of fatherhood is one of the hallmarks of extreme poverty, the instincts still dwell within these men, and can be found again.
A thought I had several weeks after reading this book: Many of the scenes in the book are of the children surrounding Skeet as he tends to the litter of puppies - quietly revealing their unconscious craving for parenting themselves.
The author dips heavily into her pregnancy journal for long early parts of the book, writing almost fetishistically about the main character's first trimester...for me it was all a bit gross and self-reverential but it's meant to give teenage girls like the main character something to think about.
It's written in High School English Literary style, just begging to be added to mandatory reading lists around the country. And there are tons of allegories, metaphors and references to the myth of Jason and Medea to keep decades of high school students busy writing book reports.
This is the third postdelluvian Katrina book I've received from Early Reviewers, and it is by far the best. The almost torturous 10-chapter buildup before we see Skeet -- and Katrina -- emerge fully-developed and alive was worth it in the end.
One of the things that made me like this book was how morally ambiguous it is. None of the characters are right or wrong. They are all just people with human motivations and follies. The closest that we come to a sense of right or wrong is that Manny comes off as an insensitive jerk at times, but even he has redeeming qualities, which become evident towards the end of the book.
I also loved the creative symmetry of the novel. The author, Jesmyn Ward, opens the novel with China giving birth. At the end of the novel, the focus is on the future and Esch’s pregnancy. At the novel’s climax, Hurricane Katrina is compared to a mother, and the memory of Esch’s mother who died giving birth permeates the novel. The idea of what it means to be a mother and the idea that a mother can be strong as well as nurturing is consistent throughout the novel. As a counterpoint, Big Henry, the largest male in the novel, is the most nurturing character, which again challenges the typical role of the mother as the nurturer and the father as the sense of strength. Again, this adds to the humanity of the characters and the depth of the novel.
I really liked this novel. It was enjoyable to read, and at times it made me think a bit about cultural attitudes, poverty, and what it must be like to go through a disaster. Ward manages to create empathy in the reader by portraying such human characters, which is admirable. I thought this all made for a very good book.
Salvage The Bones is a first person account of twelve days in the life of a poor rural black family in Mississippi leading up to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005. The jacket copy hypes the hurricane, but the characters don’t spend a lot of time focusing on the upcoming storm. Their lives revolve around family, dogs, and surviving. The narrator, an adolescent teen girl named Esch, also must come to terms with her possible pregnancy and the one man who could be the father of her child. Hurricane Katrina is a huge event, but this is not a story about surviving against the elements. It’s more of a story about surviving against the totality of their environment.
I actually read the book months ago, but I’ve been struggling with this review, irrespective of my travel schedule. It’s very well written, the characters are engaging, and the kind of people portrayed are a worthy story to tell. All the way through the book I was impressed with so much, and yet I just didn’t enjoy the book overall. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I haven’t made a whole lot of progress.
It isn’t a problem with the characters. I loved them. Esch’s brother Skeetah keeps a dog for fighting. And even though dog fighting pisses me off, his obstinate pursuit of whatever he thinks his dog needs is noble. When Skeetah brings Esch along to steal cow dewormer from a neighbor’s barn, I was rooting for him.
What I’m wondering is if I was wanting them to succeed too much. Salvage The Bones does not tell a story of success. The books tells a story of survival. The family survives in the face of Hurricane Katrina. They endure through debilitating poverty. They’ve already withstood the tragic death of their mother. Ms. Ward doesn’t turn this into an unlikely story of thriving against the odds. I wanted so much for good things to happen for them, but that never comes. I think it would have been wrong, and disappointing in another way.
The best analogy that I have is various friends of mine who haven’t succeeded. It is so tough to watch their continual struggles and be able to do nothing to help them. Sometimes, I’ve had to distance myself because participating in their lives became too painful. I felt similarly for Esch. Bad shit was going to happen. The words are fixed; I can’t help her. So I’m stuck riding along with her life, so to speak. It’s not pleasant to be powerless to help the powerless. In the real world, ugly suffering is something I have the luxury of facing when I want to usually. Reading through Salvage The Bones reminded me just how much of an option that is for me.
It’s a pleasure to read the story. At the same time, Salvage The Bones is tough for the very same reasons.
Esch is fourteen and pregnant, living with her brothers and her father on a hardscrabble piece of land they call “The Pit” in the small, coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Left motherless when their mother died giving birth to Junior, who is now seven years old, the siblings are fiercely loyal to each other. Skeetah, devoted to his fighting dog, China, is determined to stand up to their father – a man who has been mostly absent and drunk, and can become volatile and abusive.
He reaches to grab Skeetah’s arm, to pull him to standing and then shove him, probably. This is what he does when he wants to manhandle, humiliate; he pulls one of us toward him, shakes, and then shoves us hard backward so that we fall in the dirt. So that we sprawl like toddlers learning to walk: dirt on our faces and our hands, faces wet with crying or mucus, ashamed. – from Salvage the Bones -
Randall, the eldest boy, longs to find his way out of The Pit through his skill as a basketball player. Junior, too young to fully understand the family dynamics, clings to Randall. Junior’s innocence, his childish body and desperate longing for attention, are heartbreaking.
Sometimes I wonder if Junior remembers anything, or if his head is like a colander, and the memories of who bottle-fed him, who licked his tears, who mothered him, squeeze through the metal like water to run down the drain, and only leave the present day, his sand holes, his shirtless bird chest, Randall yelling at him: his present washed clean of memory like vegetables washed clean of the dirt they grow in. – from Salvage the Bones -
Salvage the Bones is narrated in the observant voice of Esch in the ten days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, culminating in the storm and its aftermath. The novel opens with the birth of China’s puppies – creatures which represent money and prestige to Skeetah. As with all the characters in the book, the puppies are born into a world which challenges their very survival…and China, muscular and bred to fight, is far from a competent mother.
What China is doing is fighting, like she was born to do. Fight our shoes, fight other dogs, fight these puppies that are reaching for the outside, blind and wet. – from Salvage the Bones -
Jesmyn Ward’s writing is breathtaking, raw and completely honest. She portrays a family who is somehow surviving against all odds – ragtag, poor, and with only each other to depend upon. China takes center stage in a novel about determination and fighting for one’s life. She is sleek, muscular and focused. China’s heart belongs only to Skeetah, a young boy who has mastered a brutish beast with a penchant for killing. China’s presence is both a representation of loyalty and love, and a sinister threat – the siblings constantly admonish Junior to stay away from her, she is not allowed in the house, and Randall (a fit and toned athlete) is frightened of her. Against the backdrop of China is the myth of Medea. Esch is reading Medea’s story and the themes of betrayal, suffering, and injured love are strong in the novel. In the Greek play, Medea seeks vengeance against the father of her children when he betrays her love. Medea’s jealously is violent and murderous – and her story weaves in and out of Salvage the Bone, giving the novel a dark and foreboding feel.
Salvage the Bones is like nothing I have ever read before. I found it hard to tear myself away from these characters whose lives were so fragile and yet were defined by an inner strength which was both admirable and grim. Ward’s ability to draw the reader into a world which is sad, brutal and nearly hopeless, speaks volumes about her talent. Because, despite the bleakness, the novel allows for a glimmer of something which could be called hope. There is something remarkable about Esch, Skeetah, Randall and Junior – their fierce protection of each other, the love that surfaces through the dirt and despair of their lives, and the determination to find the light in the darkness.
Salvage the Bones is stunning, beautiful, tragic, heartbreaking, and wholly absorbing. Readers should be warned – Ward includes scenes of dog fights, and it is difficult to read – but, it is not gratuitous. China’s story is as much a part of the novel as the stories of Esch, Randall, Skeetah and Junior…in fact, China’s story provides the structure from which all of the other stories spool out.
Salvage the Bones is an original, beautifully wrought piece of literary fiction.
The writing was beautiful but I often found it to be contrived or it seemed that the author was trying too hard to be good. My other main quibble is the ‘between the lines’ comparison of China (the pit bull) and Esch. Yes, both females were pregnant (China had a rather graphic birthing scene in the first chapter), but it seemed to me that Esch was holding up China and Skeetah’s relationship as the Holy Grail example of love (Skeetah is Esch’s older brother and China’s owner). And whenever that aspect was brought to the fore front of the book I had a big “What the what?!?” going through my head. Not that there was any bestiality and there were some sweet scenes displaying Skeetah’s care and concern for China, but he raised her to fight. Is this really the best relationship Esch has ever witnessed? I thought the most compelling aspect of the book was the bond between the siblings and the loyalty and love they showed to each other.
A storm is coming. Esch is fifteen and she lives with her three brothers in
This story covers the twelve days leading to Katrina, as the family tries to prepare, made difficult by the sudden news of Esch’s pregnancy. Dog-fighting is also a major part of this tale, beautifully rendered but also brutal and graphic, so be forewarned.
Ward’s prose is strong, deft and vivid. She captures the hard beauty of a family dealing with everyday life and an oncoming catastrophe.
I will add the caveat most reviewers have felt necessary: If you simply cannot stomach reading about bad things happening to animals, give this one a pass.
The story is told by 15 year old Esch, the only girl in a dirt-poor family in coastal Mississippi. On day 1 of the story, her brother's pit bull China has puppies, and Esch discovers that she is pregnant. Over the course of the story one bad thing
Ward's writing style is gorgeous too. I read "Where the Line Bleeds" when it first came out a few years ago. I was working at a Barnes & Noble at the time, and I told my coworkers and customers that this was an author to watch. She was THAT good. For anyone who has read her first book, you'll appreciate the one sentence mention that the protagonists of that book get in Salvage the Bones.
This book was beautiful and raw, both uplifting and upsetting. It was a wonderful story about survival in the midst of poverty and adversity. Every character is really well-developed. I was both sympathetic to and frustrated with most of them at one time or the other. This novel is told in the first person by Esch and takes place over the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. As the storm grows closer, the tension builds. The descriptions are so vivid; it felt like I was there with them. I could not put this book down for the last two chapters as the storm grew closer.
I’m not the only who loved this book – it’s a National Book Award Finalist for Fiction this year. (Winners will be announced November 16.)
Set on the Gulf Coast in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi during the ten days leading
It is the summer of 2005, the middle of the Atlantic hurricane season, and a storm named Katrina slowly gathers strength in the Gulf of Mexico. Claude obsessively follows news reports the path of the hurricane, but his pleas to his children to make preparations for this storm mainly fall on deaf ears, as they are distracted by their own hopes and desires, and doubt that this storm will be any different than any of the other ones they and previous generations of Batistes have lived through. Claude decides that they should ride out the storm, despite the mandatory evacuation warning, a decision they will all regret once Katrina makes landfall.
Esch, the precocious and sensitive narrator of this story, identifies herself with Medea, the wife of the Greek mythic hero Medea, and with Skeetah's dog China, who is tender toward her owner and her pups, but fights ferociously and relentlessly against anyone who opposes her.
Salvage the Bones is an unblinking and unforgettable coming of age novel about the despair of the lives of an impoverished rural family in the Deep South, whose disparate members are often at odds with each other, yet their fierce devotion to each other binds them together in moments of crisis. This novel may not be appropriate for some readers, due to its vivid description of dogfighting, but I would highly recommend it to everyone else.
Why? Simply put - it wasn't just about the dog fighting scenes or the breeding of pit bull puppies to be fighters (though both incidents are frightful enough). My issue is this: I never got the sense that Jesmyn Ward was condemning dog fighting. I couldn't find an underlying message that spoke against this cruelty.
I am assuming Ward included dog fighting in Salvage The Bones because it's a popular past time in certain pockets of the American South. But the animal lover in me wonders what's the point. Did it strengthen the story? Make the family's plight more deplorable? I don't think it did. And with the absence of a strong message that condemns dog fighting, I wonder why you need it.
Now don't get me wrong. I am sure Jesmyn Ward isn't for dog fighting. I just wish she made dog fighting an allegorical theme.
The rest of the book was good. The characters were complex and believable. Their lives of poverty were startling. The effects of Katrina were devastating. Yes, everything else about Salvage The Bones was spot on. But the dog fighting was too much for me.
So, heed my warning. Don't read this book if you hate dog fighting, if you are against breeding dogs to fight and are tired of pit bulls being used in this manner. Salvage The Bones will not be the book for you - just like it wasn't the book for me.
The hurricane remains in the background for much of the book. The children are vaguely aware that it is out there, but are not at all apprehensive. Ward, however, skillfully builds the tension each day, to the point that I began to wonder how she was ever going to pull off the drama of the storm itself. Needless to say, she did.
Another important element to the story is China, a white pit bull that one of her brothers has raised, loves and uses in dogfights. A word of warning, if the idea of dogfights and cruelty to animals upsets you, than this is probably not a story that you should read. I found that the story was told so realistically and openly that judgments really had no place. This is their life.
Meanwhile Katrina is lurking on the horizon, and although we know with hindsight how life changing this storm was, the vivid description was mesmerizing. Salvage the Bones is a big-hearted story about family that is told in almost musical prose. The author’s vision and passion delivers a magical story of love and caring that no amount of poverty change erase.