A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesnt show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting.
As the twelve days that make up the novel’s framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family—motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to face another day. A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.
Description taken from Goodreads.
In mid-June, Business Insider released the three books that Stanford is asking incoming freshmen to read over the summer, so I decided to read them. The first that I tried was Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and it was a bit anticlimactic, to say the least. On a strictly review-based level, I’d say that this is a legitimate way to pass the time, but frankly, I’ve seen amateur children’s novels with more direction than this read. While it has potential, it’s nothing I would recommend.
** SPOILERS BELOW **
Before I get into the analysis of it all, I will say that I have the upmost respect for Ward’s literary accomplishments. However, with that in mind, I’m of the belief that awards don’t demonstrate literary greatness. Great writing does, and I don’t consider this truly great writing. Maybe my misunderstanding of Salvage the Bones comes from a lack of experience with this setting and genre. I often thought while reading this that there had to be more that I was missing. In fact, I wondered if Stanford’s students were instructed to read this book so that they could be reminded how little they know when they show up to school in the fall. I, for one, would respect any school’s decision to make students read a subpar literary novel just so they can make up their own minds about the difference between bad literature and good literature. And if I’m completely wrong, by all means, if someone has critical thinking questions or essay prompts for this book, I would love to explore it on a deeper level.
But based solely on my first reading of Salvage the Bones, if there was anything of substance to be found here, I would say it was in the lives of Skeetah and Esch, particularly Skeetah’s relationship with his dog, China. I also thought that the role, or lack thereof, of their younger brother, Junior, was intriguing. There were other characters who held distinct positions, like the boy who gets Esch pregnant, Manny, but the rest of the supporting cast was forgettable. The recurring motif of Medea and Jason’s story alongside Skeetah and Esch’s was of more consequence than the other characters.
Skeetah and China were my favorite characters of the story without a doubt. They were the most complex and thought-through, but I did want the message behind them to be a bit more thorough. What I derived was that Skeetah and China’s relationship is very much about love, but in a brutal way. In certain scenes throughout the novel, Skeetah takes high risks for China and expects higher returns. I wouldn’t say that the way they love is abusive to the other, but they seem to push and shove their way through life when they don’t have to. This is the kind of relationship that I’d hoped to see more of in this story and that gave me hope for the ending.
One scene in particular stood out to me: toward the end of Salvage the Bones, Skeetah has China enter a dog fight so that he doesn’t have to give one of her puppies over to the father’s owner. He wants to keep the puppies because he could make money off of selling them and pay for the expenses of his siblings. Despite the protests of his siblings and warnings about how hurt China could get in fighting so soon after birthing, Skeetah doesn’t give up and defends the idea that China can fight and win even after she becomes injured. The way I see it, there are several explanations behind this scene that gives it significance, but it boils down to one major one, which is Skeetah’s toxic trust in China and only in her. In the beginning of the story, Esch tells us that Skeetah’s dogs would die every time he got one, and he would always wait a week before getting another one, until he got China and she survived. From the beginning, China’s been a fighter, and she becomes a creature that Skeetah can have faith in when everything else in his life in shambles. Even when it means putting China’s life in danger, Skeetah continues to have unwavering faith in her, possibly because he can’t stand to see China back down or be defeated by anything.
In the end, Skeetah and China’s relationship did the most to shine some light on the mindsets of the other characters, specifically Manny and Esch. It’s because of Manny’s remarks about China becoming a mother that Esch begins to see how Manny really views her and other women, thus setting off the rest of the story, the Jason and Medea motif, and Esch’s small character development throughout the novel. In this way, I would relate Esch’s role as the narrator to Scout’s role in To Kill a Mockingbird or Nick’s role in The Great Gatsby in that Esch is very much there, interacting with the characters, being influenced and illuminated by them, but always from the outside.
Another character who was stuck on the outside was the youngest brother, Junior, who’s a crazy kid who always seems to be around doing things but never truly a part of what’s going on. Strangely enough, in him, I saw my interpretation of Lukas Graham’s song 7 Years. I love the song because of the journey it takes the listener and its ultimate use of irony. In the lyrics, Graham talks about when he was younger and everyone around him told him to get out there so he wouldn’t be lonely, but he was lonely the entire time, from the very first time his mother told him at age seven to make some friends or he’d be lonely. The only difference was that when his mother told him that, he realized what he was. That’s what I feel Junior’s role is throughout this story. It’s like warning a rape victim about the dangers of sexual assault, or a drug junkie about how easy it is to get addicted. All of them are kids growing up in far less than ideal conditions, the world already against them, and Junior’s family continues to try to shelter him when he could’ve never been sheltered in the first place. This was genuinely interesting to see and pick apart from Esch’s perspective, and I wished Junior’s role had been written about more.
What I hold against Salvage the Bones the most is how contrived it feels. I understand that the author grew up in this setting and lived through Hurricane Katrina. The validity of the setting isn’t what I’m speaking to. The world-building, the display of poverty in this time period was perfectly laid-out and perfectly meaningless. It was a place where a story occurred, no more, no less. Yes, the story had to do with Katrina. Disasters happen everyday, in every place on Earth. That doesn’t mean we write about all of them, and it doesn’t warrant meaning. On the other hand, it can be argued that Salvage the Bones has depth because of the way it demonstrates a family fighting to survive in poverty, but if we’re talking about that, there are much better books to be read (exhibit A: S.E. Hinton’s incredible The Outsiders).
The secondary criticism that I had was the lack of any true closure. The plot seemed to be moving along pretty steadily, and I was tracking along until Skeetah, Esch, and Junior’s father gets into a bit of an accident with his alcohol and medication and is unable to prepare for the storm. Up until that point, the kids were all wrapped up in their own circumstances and paid little to no attention to the incoming storm. Then suddenly, they all turn around and become busy little bees like students who have a 6-page paper due in two hours and haven’t yet started. After the storm, it quickly transitions into a vague sort of ending that answers zero questions about the story, the characters, and their futures, and then tries to pull together some semblance of character development in Esch on the last page. In-between all of that, there were moments like the dog fight that had huge potential in terms of revealing insight or clarity into the story’s message but failed to take advantage, all the while leaving us wondering what happens with Esch’s pregnancy? Did Skeetah know before? What happens with her relationship with Manny? Why does the oldest brother, Randall, continue to defend Skeetah despite Skeetah’s broken promises? What happens now with China gone, swept away in the storm?
On one final note, in the Business Insider article where the three books of this year for the class of 2021 were announced, professor Noah Diffenbaugh, the faculty moderator of this program, said, “All three of these books have had a deep impact on me and my thinking… And, just as each of these books offers a sense of hope and optimism amid extremely challenging circumstances, I am optimistic that in discussing these challenges we can help each other find a sense of hope for the future!”
I do understand what Prof. Diffenbaugh is trying to get at, or at least, I believe that I do. That awe of the human will to live and survive and be happy in the most degrading and crushing of circumstances is truly incredible, commendable, and well-worth exploring in the literary realm. I admit that this can be difficult to find in books that I’ve read before, but it can be found in classics like Lés Miserables and 1984, even young-adult novels like Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival, and most notably in Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which taught me the most about what I know of what Prof. Diffenbaugh is describing. I look forward to finding this phenomenon in the next two books in this set. However, I don’t see it in Salvage the Bones.