Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Book Award winner (she is much in the news lately for her 2017 National Book Award winner Sing, Unburied, Sing which I loved). It is the story of a family living in poverty in semi-rural Mississippi in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage. The protagonist is a young teenage girl who has two older brothers and a younger brother. Their father is largely absent in any supervisory sort of parenting role and focused on preparing the house for the onslaught of Katrina. The mother has died some years ago in childbirth.
As the story unfolds, we get to meet the family and their friends and see the world from our protagonist’s viewpoint, with all the pain and panic of realizing she is pregnant, the care and concern for her brothers and the anguish of unrequited love. We see her brothers struggle with their own demons – one brother has basketball aspirations and hopes for opportunity, another is totally absorbed with his dog and her litter and the puppies’ well being. The father is focused on preparing their decrepit house to withstand the coming storm, oblivious of the storms raging in his children’s lives. Ward is not verbose and descriptions do not drag on, but the early chapters are awash with all manner of big and small details of life that make this family real to the reader. When the storm finally hits, we are heavily vested in their struggle to survive, and the description of the power and majesty of the storm is gripping. However, it is in the aftermath with the family picking themselves up, that this book shines brightest.
The writing is lyrical and reminds me of Maya Angelou – Jesmyn Ward writes like a painter or poet. The scenes she sets, the characters she puts in those scenes and the description is so absorbing that you barely notice the story unfolding. Ward takes a poor dysfunctional family with problems aplenty (petty crime, dog fighting, drugs and teenage pregnancy) and makes them beautiful and noble and heroic.
This is a book that will shine for some years to come. I am so glad to have read it.
Salvage the Bones
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Publication Date: September 2011
Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader, sometime engineer.