It's summer, and when it's summer, there's always a hurricane coming or leaving here. Each pushes its way through the flat Gulf to the twenty-six-mile manmade Mississippi beach, where they knock against the old summer mansions with their slave galleys turned guesthouses before running over the bayou, through the pines, to lose wind, drip rain, and die in the north. Most don't even hit us head-on anymore; most turn right to Florida or take a left for Texas, brush past and glance off us like a shirtsleeve. We ain't had one come straight for us in years, time enough to forget how many jugs of water we need to fill, how many cans of sardines and potted meat we should stock, how many tubs of water we need."
It's a Hurricane Katrina story, but so much more. After the jump, my review.
"Salvage the Bones" provides an intimate look at life in the poor, rural South. The narrator is a fifteen-year-old girl, Esch Batiste. She lives in a male-dominated family with her older brothers Randall and Skeetah, her younger brother Junior, and the family's father. The mother died seven years before, while giving birth to Junior. These are all distinctly drawn characters with different personalities, attitudes, interests and reactions to events. The reader ends up knowing these characters individually and caring about them deeply.
Most of the story deals with the lives of Esch and her brothers, not with the hurricane. Esch is a hopeless romantic, trapped in unrequited love with a friend of her brothers and in love with the mythological story of Medea and Jason of Argonaut fame. Randall wants to win a college basketball scholarship. Skeetah cares only for his fighting pit bull, China, and her puppies. The father is the only one who is aware that Katrina is bearing down on them and what that could mean to them.
Hurricane Katrina just happens to be the hook Jesmyn Ward uses to hang her story. Esch recounts the twelve days leading up to the hurricane. In the first few days, the hurricane is only a distant threat and the kids' lives are consumed by basketball, dog fights, young love, and the family's obvious deep affection for each other shown throughout. When the hurricane finally hits, we get a chapter that's going to make a harrowing scene in a movie some day. But don't buy the book for the storm. Buy it for the human stories of one family in the poor, rural South who had to face the storm with only each other for protection.
I am hardly a fan of sequels, but this is one story that I really hope the author considers picking up again, say, ten years down the road and updates us on the lives of Esch and her brothers.
Now, a couple of quibbles with the writing. The novel is narrated by Esch. In her dialog with others, Esch sounds just like a fifteen year old girl. But when narrating the story, Esch is much too eloquent for any fifteen year old girl, especially one from Esch's background. The language is Ward's, not Esch's. Second, much of that eloquence is overblown. The similes and metaphors are too frequent. Ward strains to make them original but sometimes makes them baffling, or even comical. A good editor might have trimmed some of that. Still, those quibbles didn't detract from the impact of this novel, which was both strong and lasting. Like Hurricane Katrina.