Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

In August 2005 I had been living in the States for less than 6 months and was still getting used to the life of finally having my own apartment (tiny place in Spanish Harlem) and a corporate job, as well as just life in general in NYC. I couldn't afford cable TV at that point, so would watch the news every day on the "regular" TV channels, trying to figure out what was important and what was not as important. I'd never lived in a country where hurricane season actually caused damage, and was following the formation and tracking of all of the tropical storms and hurricanes with avid interest. When Hurricane Katrina went from a category 1 to a 3 and then a 5 in a short period of time, and looked like it was heading right for New Orleans and the surrounding areas I did wonder what would happen when it finally made landfall. I never thought it would create the absolute destruction and devastation that it did. Obviously I wasn't the only one to think that way either, but then again, I really had nothing to compare it to, never having been in a hurricane myself.

Salvage the Bones takes place over 12 days in August, 2005 in the Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage. 9 days before Katrina hits, the days of the hurricane, and then the aftermath. It's the story of a family of four children and their father, the mother long gone, taken away by death at the birth of her last child. Esch, the main character, speaks in the first person, and the story is mainly hers, spoken from her eyes and mind. Esch is the third child and the only daughter, looks up to her brothers Skeetah and Randall, and looks out for the youngest, Junior. Their father is bringing them up in the only way he knows how, often drunk and often aggressive, but still trying, in his own way. The children are fiercely loyal and protective, and live how they can; Randall intent on getting a basketball scholarship to get him out of the town, Skeetah obsessed with his prize fighter pitbull China and her puppies, Esch wondering how she can keep her pregnancy from everyone and Junior trying to grow up without ever having known his mother.

The father knows that a big storm is heading their way and can feel that it's not going to be like any other storm they have had to face over the past few years. The kids only half listen to their father's fears but help prepare as much as they can, boarding up windows, saving water, buying non-perishable food... When the evacuation call comes in they just put the phone right back down again, as they know there is nowhere else to go but brave the storm at home. But when the hurricane finally hits it is worse than expected, and all of their survival instincts kick in to face the destruction together, as the family they have always been.

The story is heart-breaking, but very realistic: the poverty, the loyalty, the love, the survival and the ability to face destruction and continue with life as you know it, just because there is no other option. The writing in the present tense just amplifies the life in the moment-feel and the way the family lives to survive each day, together, despite whatever they may come across, or whatever comes across them. Amidst the destruction there is still an element of hope that everything will be allright in the end. I literally bawled my eyes out in several sections of the novel, and Ward really doesn't hold back - there are certain scenes where you just want to close your eyes while reading so you don't have to imagine them so vividly. Read this book if you are not scared of reading about real life in the South, because that's what it's all about.

Jesmyn Ward's blog HERE

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