Oh, holy heartache and resilience! Salvage the Bones is raw; it is achingly bare; it is relentless; it is magnificent. In this story set in the shadow, the eye, and the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Jesmyn Ward explores complicated sibling dynamics and fierce familial loyalty among a poor black family in a Mississippi hamlet. She describes jarring poverty with a graceful commentary that reveals but doesn’t judge. She makes the patois of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi seamless and musical. And she weaves a narrative thread of Greek mythology through a story that is both an unexpected home to and poignantly perfect fit for its tragic allusions.
Through her heroine Esch, a woman among men, Ward deftly explores feminism and womanhood in this desolate world. Early in the novel, the reader is shown how adeptly Esch has learned the paradoxical power of female sexuality. Her take is not for the faint of heart: “I hugged him tighter, held him the way I’d embraced those boys I’d fucked because it was easier to let them get what they wanted instead of denying them, instead of making them see me” and “I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne. I was beloved.”
Esch sees the power and vulnerability of the female, manifest not just in sex, but in motherhood. She is constantly defining and defying what female strength means. When her brother’s dog has puppies, she soaks up a conversation between brother and his friend:
“Any dog give birth like that is less strong after. Even if you don’t think it. Take a lot out of an animal to nurse and nurture like that. Price of being female.” Finally Manny glances at me. It slides over me like I’m glass.
Skeetah laughs. It sounds as if it’s hacking its way out of him.
“You serious? That’s when they come into they strength. They got something to protect.” He glances at me, too, but I feel it even after he looks away. “That’s power.”
The reader is left to wonder whose perspective resonates more with her. Perhaps Esch is wondering the same. Her feelings about motherhood, shaped by tragedy, trauma, and absence, force their way to the forefront of her consciousness as Katrina’s waters subside.
I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards over my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black that the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppy, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.
Esch speaks often of the “only thing that I can do.” What Jesmyn Ward can do is write an indelible, beautiful, heart-wrenching story.