Salvage The Bones / Jesmyn Ward

I’m back from months of travel now. I’ve posted a couple of times, but I haven’t had the time to catch up on book thoughts. I have a backlog, so expect a stream of posts ever the next couple of weeks.

Salvage The Bones is another book I picked up through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I grabbed this for two reasons: it has an awesome cover, and the novel is a little different than what I normally read. The week after I received it, Ms. Ward read at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, so I attended. Due to traffic, I arrived about 15 minutes late and missed the reading portion, if there was one. Ms. Ward was answering questions posed by about six people. None were actually about the book, since no one had read it yet. 60 days later, a lot of people were reading Salvage The Bones; it won the National Book Award.

Cover of Salvage The Bones

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.

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