Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
Per our book club discussion last week, this falls into the “finally having an excuse to read a great book” category. I actually had this book in my hands right after it was published, because it sounded so interesting when I was cataloging it, but I never got around to reading it (as it goes with so many books I check out!) and then it won the National Book Award and there was no getting it back from the library for a while and so I kind of totally forgot about it. And then, book club! Yay, book club!
I guess part of the reason this one fell off my reading list is because as I heard more about it I found out it was one of those literary novels that is more about people and places and Social Truths than about, like, a story. So luckily I was prepared for that going in, because many of my fellow readers were disappointed by the lack of plot.
It was still really interesting to me, though, partially because it takes place right before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast and I still am not so knowledgeable about that particular disaster and partially because it’s about a poor black family living on said Gulf Coast and that is a topic I am basically unknowledgeable about. So it was a learning experience!
The novel opens with the birth of a litter of pit bull puppies and, soon after, the revelation that our protagonist, Esch, is totes a pregnant teenager, but not in the fun Juno way. Esch spends the rest of the novel, which is just a few days in story time, dealing with this fact on all the levels from “omg there is a thing inside me” to “omg this thing is going to become a baby in nine months” to “omg what is the father going to think about this?” Meanwhile, her brother Skeetah is raising his own babies — the aforementioned puppies — and worrying himself over whether they’ll survive and whether he can sell them for good money for his family and whether his beloved dog will still be able to fight (yes, dog fighting, I’m sorry) after all this puppy-rearing is over.
And that’s… basically it. There’s a little bit about the impending hurricane but it’s not nearly as important as the family relationships or Esch’s relationship with her tiny fetus and its father. And boy, do those relationships resonate. I felt my heart breaking more than once for Esch as she dealt with lame “friends” and stubborn family, for Skeetah as he did his best for his two families (human and canine), and for a few other characters unwillingly caught up in Esch and Skeetah’s dramas.
On the down side, there are also many references to Medea and Jason of Greek mythology that I have to admit that I didn’t understand even though it seemed like Ward was almost over-explaining them. Also dog fighting. Also sometimes Ward was a bit unclear with things like dialogue and chronology and my brain was not pleased at having to do this work itself.
All things considered, though, I thought this was a great look into a little piece of a life that is not mine and, as another book club goer said, an excellent answer to the question of why people like Esch and her family did not evacuate before the giant scary hurricane, which presumes a lot of things about wealth and privilege. It’s a thinking book, but one well worth thinking about.
Recommendation: For those like me who need more diversity in their reading and actual lives, or in general those who don’t mind a book without a story.