"Salvage the Bones" by Jesmyn Ward

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“Salvage the Bones” comes to us as a highly unlikely debut work of fiction from Jesmyn Ward. It combines deepest family devotion with rancorous feud, petty self-absorption with timeless love, minor quotidian problem with once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe. There is heroism here, great love, stunning, thought-provoking symbolism, and an uncountable string of apt metaphors for everything from the sound of someone eating a cracker to the tumultuous sky during Hurricane Katrina.

Through it all, our fifteen-year-old, first-person heroine, Esch, reads of Medea in her mythology text and compares the boy she loves (and who has made her pregnant) to Jason. And it is an apt comparison, for he is duplicitous and dismissive – not father material. Father material does abound in the other male characters here: Esch’s Daddy, her oldest brother Randall, and Randall’s friend Big Henry, are all portrayed as worthy stalwarts, and each has Esch’s welfare foremost in his heart. This fact illustrates one of Ms. Ward’s great strengths: she populates her novel with balanced, nuanced characters – she then presses these characters into the epic natural disaster of Katrina.

Set in a small Gulf Coast town in Mississippi, “Salvage the Bones” recounts twelve days’ events – ten leading up to Katrina, the day of the storm, and the day after. So unlike Magriet de Moor’s “The Storm,” the actual hurricane occupies only a small part of the story – about a twelfth. This narrative’s beauty stems from the basic human strivings of its characters. Esch finds out she’s pregnant by a boy she burns for. Randall prepares for a basketball exhibition so he can be noticed by college recruiters; Esch’s brother Skeetah tries to bring his prize dog’s puppies successfully into the world. The coming storm’s menace roils below the surface and provides an echo for Esch’s sinking spirits. As Daddy struggles to get his children to help prepare the house – lay in supplies, board up windows – Esch and her brothers deal with life’s vagaries, some of which make us hopeless indeed.

Ms. Ward has accomplished something so human and endearing – I’ve seen this novel described as “big-hearted,” and that’s exactly right. Also, there is an inevitability here, by which we know the storm is bearing down on our family, but the end poses a fine counterpoint to the personal and national disaster we encounter. And Ms. Ward has set it up brilliantly, so that no action is inconsistent with the novel’s characters.

A reverberating, thought-provoking debut, this, with memorable characters and scenes. Take it up and marvel at an important new voice.