Salvage the Bones (Ward)

Salvage the Bones
Jesmyn Ward, 2011
Bloomsbury USA
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781608196265

Winner, 2011 National Book Award

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else.

Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets; she's fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull's new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child's play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that make up the novel's framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family-motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce-pulls itself up to face another day.

A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—DeLisle, Mississippi, USA
Education—B.A., Stanford University; M.F.A., University of Michigan
Awards—2 National Book Awards (others below)
Currently—lives in Mississippi; commutes to Mobile, Alabama

Jesmyn Ward is an American novelist and two-time National Book Award winner for fiction. Salvage the Bones won in 2011 (it also won a 2012 Alex Award), and Sing, the Unburied, Sing, won in 2017. Her other two books include her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds (2008) and a memoir, The Men We Reaped (2013), about the deaths of her brother and other young male friends.

Early years
Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, a small rural community in Mississippi. She developed a love-hate relationship with her hometown after having been bullied at public school by black classmates and, subsequently, by white students while attending a private school paid for by her mother’s employer.

Ward received her undergraduate degree from Stanford University, choosing to become a writer upon graduation in order to honor the memory of her younger brother killed by a drunk driver earlier that year.  Ward went on to earn an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan in 2005. At U of M she won five Hopwood Awards for essays, drama, and fiction.

Shortly afterwards, she and her family became victims of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. With their house in De Lisle flooding rapidly, the Ward family set out in their car to get to a local church, but ended up stranded in a field full of tractors. When the white owners of the land eventually checked on their possessions, they refused to invite the Wards into their home, claiming they were overcrowded. Tired and traumatized, the refugees were eventually given shelter by another white family down the road.

Ward went on to work at the University of New Orleans, where her daily commute took her through neighborhoods ravaged by the hurricane. Empathizing with the struggle of the survivors and coming to terms with her own experience during the storm, Ward was unable to write creatively for three years—the time it took her to find a publisher for her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds.

In 2008 she returned to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow—one of the most prestigious awards available to emerging American writers.

Literary career
Earlier in 2008, just as Ward was deciding to give up writing and enroll in a nursing program, Where the Line Bleeds was accepted by Doug Seibold at Agate Publishing. Starting on the day twin protagonists Joshua and Christophe DeLisle graduate from high school, Where the Line Bleeds follows the brothers as their choices pull them in opposite directions. Unwilling to leave the small rural town on the Gulf Coast where they were raised by their loving grandmother, the twins struggle to find work, with Joshua eventually becoming a dock hand and Christophe joining his drug-dealing cousin.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called Ward "a fresh new voice in American literature" who "unflinchingly describes a world full of despair but not devoid of hope." The novel was picked as a Book Club Selection by Essence and received a Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) Honor Award in 2009. It was shortlisted for the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.

Her second novel Salvage the Bones (2011) homes in once more on the visceral bond between poor black siblings growing up on the Gulf Coast. Chronicling the lives of pregnant teenager Esch Batiste, her three brothers, and their father during the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the day of the cyclone, and the day after, Ward uses a vibrant language steeped in metaphors to illuminate the fundamental aspects of love, friendship, passion, and tenderness.

Explaining her main character's fascination with the Greek mythological figure of Medea, Ward told Elizabeth Hoover of the Paris Review

It infuriates me that the work of white American writers can be universal and lay claim to classic texts, while black and female authors are ghetto-ized as "other." I wanted to align Esch with that classic text, with the universal figure of Medea, the antihero, to claim that tradition as part of my Western literary heritage. The stories I write are particular to my community and my people, which means the details are particular to our circumstances, but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal, human one.

In 2011, Ward won the National Book Award in the Fiction category for Salvage the Bones. Interviewed by CNN’s Ed Lavandera, she said that both her nomination and her victory had come as a surprise, given that the novel had been largely ignored by mainstream reviewers. In a television interview with Anna Bressanin of BBC News on (December 22, 2011), Ward said...

When I hear people talking about the fact that they think we live in a post-racial America, … it blows my mind, because I don’t know that place. I’ve never lived there. … If one day, … they’re able to pick up my work and read it and see … the characters in my books as human beings and feel for them, then I think that that is a political act.

Jesmyn Ward received an Alex Award for Salvage the Bones in 2012. The Alex Awards are given out each year by the Young Adult Library Services Association to ten books written for adults that resonate strongly with young people aged 12 through 18.  Commenting on the winning books in School Library Journal, former Alex Award committee chair, Angela Carstensen described Salvage the Bones as a novel with "a small but intense following—each reader has passed the book to a friend."

In 2013, Ward published her memoir Men We Reaped. She announced on her blog two years earlier that she had finished the book's first draft, calling it the hardest thing she had ever written. The memoir explores the lives of her brother and four other young black men who lost their lives in her hometown. (Adapted from the publisher and Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/28/2013.)

Book Reviews
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that's about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy…Salvage the Bones has the aura of a classic about it.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

The novel’s power comes from the dread of the approaching storm and a pair of violent climaxes. The first is a dog fight, an appalling spectacle given emotional depth by Skeetah’s love for the pit bull China (their bond is the strongest and most affecting in the book). When the hurricane strikes, Ms. Ward endows it, too, with attributes maternal and savage: ‘Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.
Wall Street Journal

Jesmyn Ward has written...the first Katrina-drenched fiction I'd press upon readers now.... Ward's pacing around the hurricane is exquisite—we nearly forget its impending savagery. The Batistes’ shared sacrifice is moving, made more so by their occasional shirking of sacrifice. Ward allows the letdowns integral to family life to play their part.
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Searing.... Despite the brutal world it depicts, Salvage the Bones is a beautiful read. Ward’s redolent prose conjures the magic and menace of the southern landscape.
Dallas Morning News

(Starred review.) Ward's poetic second novel covers the 12 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina via the rich, mournful voice of Esch Batiste, a pregnant 14-year-old black girl living.… [T]hough her voice threatens to overpower the story, it does a far greater service to the book by giving its cast of small lives a huge resonance.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Ward uses fearless, toughly lyrical language to convey this family's close-knit tenderness, the sheer bloody-minded difficulty of rural African American life.… [A]n eye-opening heartbreaker that ends in hope.  —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal

A pitch-perfect account of struggle and community in the rural South… Though the characters in Salvage the Bones face down Hurricane Katrina, the story isn’t really about the storm. It’s about people facing challenges, and how they band together to overcome adversity.

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Salvage the Bones:

1. How would you describe the Batiste family—first, as a family unit, then each of the members, Esch (our narrator), Claude (the father), Randall, Skeetah, and Junior? What motivates (or not) each of them? Which family member frustrates you most? Which do you admire most?

2. Talk about Bois Sauvage and its deprivations—the poverty, unemployment and housing. How does the area shape the people, especially young people, who live there? Or the reverse—do its residents shape Bois Sauvage?

3. The love affair Skeetah has with China is very much at the heart of this story. Is Skeetah right to rob neighbors to obtain medicine he needs for her?

4. Are you disturbed by the book's concentration on dog fighting? How does the author portray the fighting? Does the love Skeetah has for China contradict your understanding of that culture?

5. What about Esch's pregnancy? Why might the author have created a narrator, and central character, as a young pregnant teenager? What, overall, does the author of this book suggest about the nature of motherhood?

6. What is the symbolic meaning of Esch's fascination with the myth of Medea? What does the author mean, in an interview with the Paris Review, when she says...

Medea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And [Medea is] in Esch, too.*

7. Suspense is results from the fact that readers are anxious to learn what happens to characters. However, given that readers know the outcome of Katrina—that it will destroy almost everything in its path—how does Ward create suspense in this story?

8. In what way is Katrina both destructive and cleansing? What does Katrina represent symbolically?

9. In the book's title, the word "salvage" is close to "savage." According to the author, the term savage has honor to it: meaning that, when all has been lost, "you are strong, you are fierce, and you possess hope."* Talk about the interplay between those two words—salvage and savage—in other words, the way the two come together in this book.

10. Were you disappointed in how the book ended? Ward, having experienced firsthand the horrors of Katrina, has said in the Paris Review...

I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.*

Do you agree with her? Or is her view of life too harsh? Isn't there also the possibility that life will spare us? What do you think?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

*Paris, 8/30/2011

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