Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones is a tragic, beautifully executed narrative about a poor African-American family caught in the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina.
In the distance, a hurricane is building in the Gulf of Mexico, but for Esch and her four brothers, the birth of China’s puppies and the hard-scrabble life they live with their bitter, drunken father in the depth of the Mississippi bayou are more pressing than any storm. As the story builds over twelve days, we watch a family, fragmented and loving, trying desperately to combat a multitude of challenges. As Katrina battles its way along the coast, destroying everything from lives to homes, it becomes clear that perhaps a hurricane is not the biggest fight these four children may have to wage. Without a mother, and virtually without a father, Esch and her brothers are lost children, desperate souls, wanting only to make sense of the disappointment and neglect around them. Esch views the world through her own yearning and pain, smartly drawing associations between her own experience and those of the characters she reads about in beloved books at school. This melding of literature and poverty permeates the entire book, as Ward’s gorgeous prose describes the grit and hopelessness of this destitute community.Artfully constructed and poignant in its detail of abject poverty, Salvage the Bones is an unlikely novel to love, but that’s exactly what happens over the course of its pages. As Ward folds us into the lives of Esch and her brothers, we want to fight for them, help them, find a way to stop the hurricane. This novel provides insight into a community that many will want to ignore, but Ward illustrates the beauty and humanity that can arise from the swamps – that, we hope, can arise from all of us.