I hope it's not too corny to say that I experienced a hurricane of emotions whilst reading Jesmyn Ward's novel Salvage the Bones.
In Salvage the Bones Ward provides the reader with a snapshot of family life in poverty stricken areas of New Orleans. The story is about one such family in the twelve days leading up to and including Hurricane Katrina.
The protaganist, a young teenage girl named Esch, and her three brothers are being raised by her alcoholic father in their run down house. Her father doesn't work and sometimes is abusive towards her brothers. There's little money for necessities such as food. Instead they live off the land as much as they can and hope that they can make money off the litter of pure bred pit bull terriers one of her older brothers is raising. They steal at times. Significantly to the story, at age fourteen, Esch finds herself pregnant.
The picture Ward paints is a bleak one, and at times I found it to be quite an assault on the emotions.
At other times however, particularly in the middle of the book, I found that the story moved a little too slowly for my liking. The book is primarily an account of the daily activities of the family. So much of their time in the days leading up Hurrican Katrina was dedicated to raising the pit bull terrier pups they hoped to sell, and as someone not particularly interested in dog rearing my attention wandered.
Just as I was really hoping for something more interesting to happen, Hurricane Katrina hit. From this point in the story the pace became so fast and the tension kept mounting and mounting as the water climbed and the storm raged on. I was reading so fast to match the pace of the events that sometimes I lost track of where I was on the page.
So, although some of the book I found to be quite slow, in the end I think that Ward effectively used the contrast in the pace of the book as a technique to really show the calm before the storm. Just as life for the real victims of Hurricane Katrina continued as usual in the days leading up to the hurricane, with all the mundaneness of daily life, so did the lives of Esch and her family, that is, until the hurricane hit and wiped everything out.
I didn't feel that Ward was too melodramatic about the damage caused by the hurricane. She presents it very calmly:
"We reach the end of the road. Here the hurricane has ripped even the road that rimmed the beach away in chunchs so there are red clay and oyster shell cliffs. The gas station, the yacht club, and all the white columned homes that faced the beach, that made us feel small and dirty and poorer than ever when we came here with daddy, piled in his truck, for gas or chips or bait on our swimming days, are gone. The hurricane as left a few steel beams, which stick up like stray hairs, from concrete foundations. There are rivers running down the highway that lines the beach. A man with white hair and an open button-down shirt is sitting on the arm of the sofa, and he is holding his head or he is rubbing his eyes or he is smoothing his hair or he is crying, and a dog, orange and large in the sun, is sniffing around him in circles, and then it is running and it is barking excitedly at what it has found. A closed black casket."
I think it's important to note that although the book does describe the devastation following the hurricane, it doesn't address any of the political fall out that occured following the hurricane. For me, the only hint of dissatisfaction with the way in which the Government handled the crisis was in the way in which Ward portrays the automatic phone calls asking residents to evacuate, which were too little too late.
Instead, Salvage the Bones, focuses on the characters.
Ward creates a real sense of wildness and need around Esch and her family. She created this by slowly revealing little details that really demonstrated the level of poverty they lived in. Bit by bit we see the dirty sheets, the lack of food, the condemned house. Ward reveals how the children had to raise their younger brother when their mother dies in childbirth. Esch is fourteen years old and has been sexually active since she was twelve for the sake of, by her own admission, some loving affection from other people that she doesn't feel at home. For me, the most poignant moment in the book (which nearly bought me to tears) was when Esch's father apologised to her on discovering that she is going to be a mother.
Yet I rarely felt pity for them because they never felt pity for themselves. Each of them has hope. They accept their reality without letting it depressing them and they make the best of their lives with what they can.
All of the characters are salvaging something. Skeetah, one of Esch's brothers, salvages anything he can for the sake of his dogs; wormer, food, planks of wood. In doing so Skeetah is really attempting to salvage his sense of purpose. They all salvage items from their property in order to prepare for the hurricane, just as everyone who was affected by the hurricane must salvage what they can of their lives. For Junior, one of Esch's brothers, it is memories of his mother that he attempts to salvage throughout the novel.
Motherhood is certainly a recurring theme in Salvage the Bones. Everyone is Esch's family remembers their mother with love. Esch's father is clearly a man devastated by the loss of his wife and the mother of his children. Esch, on the cusp of becoming a mother herself, reflects on the good that her mother did and the big shoes that she and her brothers had to fill when her mother passed away. Ward takes time to show Skeetah's dog China's attempts to be a mother to her new pups, and Skeetah's attempt to take on this roll when China and the pups need him to.
This is all occuring against the backdrop of mother nature, who is impartial to the lives of the people of New Orleans:
"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, th emother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was s torm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut is 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."Salvage the Bones is a poignant book about family, love and survival. I would recommend it to anyone.