Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward


While I was reading Jesmyn Ward’s book, Sing, Unburied, Sing, I sometimes woke up at night worried about one or another of her characters. All her characters seem fully human and you care for them, even those whose actions are reprehensible.

In Salvage the Bones, Katrina is in the background looming over all the action. Along with tardy and sometimes disastrous preparations for the hurricane, we learn about Esch, a teenage girl living in a world of a hard-drinking father, brothers all around, and the brothers’ friends. She is pregnant by Manny, one of those friends. Esch has a thing for Greek mythology, in particular Medea, and understands the world through that lens.

In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone that I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her, Medea sneaks Jason things to help him:  ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She has magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two.

One of her brothers is Skeetah, remarkable for his intense love for his fighting dog China whose obedience to him shows that devotion was returned. China had just had puppies by way of the dog Kilo and Skeetah hoped to turn those puppies into cash. The dog fight in the days before the storm was epic. It grew out of a rivalry between the owners of Kilo and a dog called Boss. Esch sees the connection to Jason, “The boys have been drawn by gossip of the fight between Kilo and Boss to the clearing like the Argonauts were to Jason at the start of his adventure.” Somehow the fight morphs to one between Kilo and China; Esch sees that Manny sides with Kilo and by extension against her. She says, “he is Jason betraying Medea and asking for the hand of the daughter of the king of Corinth in marriage after Medea has killed her brother for him, betrayed her father.” With Medea, it gets worse:  in her fury at Jason, she kills their children.

And then comes Katrina. Survival involved escaping unexpected rising water; going to the attic, breaking through the roof, then making a miraculous escape by way of a tree to the half-ruined house nearby. Only by their heroics did they survive.

The next day the community connections are evident as the family is taken in by others. When they make their way to the nearby town, they find terrible devastation. One of the friends, Big Henry, assures Esch that her baby will have plenty of daddies to help. Esch pockets bits of glass and a piece of brick stone to show her child to remember this moment.

I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above 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 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 puppies, 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.

You can count on suffering, also brothers and friends.

Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones, Bloombury, 2011, 261 pages. Available from the public library and from Amazon (I read the kindle edition).

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