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Katrina-spawned novel finally getting its due

bookHurricane Katrina spawned an awesome number of literary works, and it may be that, given sufficient time to determine the full merits of Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones, her work may be the most worthy. 

Perhaps the theory that great disasters (wars, natural disasters) invariably produce great works of art (operas, novels, paintings, etc.). This theory was often discussed by Flannery O’Conner, who commented on the irony of the “creative renaissance” in Southern literature that owes its origin to the extensive suffering and injustice associated with slavery and the Civil War. 

The narrator of Salvage the Bones is Esch, a 15-year-old girl living in Bois Sauvage, a predominately black bayou town which happens to be in the direct path of Katrina. Set in the twelve days leading up to, and just after the arrival of the hurricane, the novel presents each day as a distinct vignette.  

Esch and her brothers spend each day preparing for the terrifying arrival. They have no intention of leaving and attempt to help their drunken father reinforce their shack with sheets of plywood. They collect and store bottles of drinking water. Food supplies tend to consist of Top Ramen moon pies, vienna sausage, potted meat and eggs gathered in the woods.

However, despite Katrina’s approach, Esch and her brothers seem to be primarily concerned about their white pit bull, China who has just given birth to five pups. China has developed a reputation in the dog fights that take place in “The Pit” in Bois Sauvage.  She is a killing machine, a fact that makes Esch and her brothers the envy of their neighbors. The family’s meager economic security depends on China and each day is spent grooming, washing and feeding her. Indeed they fawn over the big dog, telling everyone that her puppies will grow up to have a killer instinct and therefore, they are invaluable. Much of the intrigue in Esch’s daily life revolves around protecting China and her pups. Skeetah is Esch’s oldest brother and the dog’s self-appointed trainer.

Esch has a multitude of problems. She struggles to love her handicapped father and is haunted by the memory of her mother’s death. Now, she discovers that she is pregnant by Bois Sauvage’s “golden boy.” Manny, the father of the baby, is totally indifferent to the consequences of a rough and tumble frolic in the dark. As each day brings more distress, the homely, pug-faced teenager turns to her imagination, searching for a means to deal with the world around her, and as luck would have it, that is Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which was a required reading at school.

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Esch begins to see the people around her as characters in her favorite book. She observes that all the girls in Bois Sauvage seem to be acting like their mythical counterparts: Psyche, Eurydice, Daphne — all of them running away from something or running after someone. However, the mythical character that Esch selects for her own role model is an ominous one. It is Medea, the fierce and vindictive wife of “the golden-haired Jason, who kills her own brother when he stands in the way of her love for Jason; and when that love turns to hate, she then murders Jason’s new wife, Creusa, her father, Creon, and even kills her own children.

Of course, Esch is not going to harm anyone.  Although she is filled with rage at the world around her, she is actually one of the forces that is holding everything together; China, the white pitbull is another.  When Katrina reaches landfall, it comes like some apocalyptic act of God, sweeping everything away, including Esch’s home and all of their feeble efforts to battle the rising water. 

In the end, Salvage the Bones acquires a kind of epic grander. Like Noah or Gilgamesh, the waters finally withdraw, leaving a confused and humbled Bois Sauvage. How much has been lost? The puppies are gone and so is China — but given the dog’s character, she may have survived. Perhaps Skeetah and his brothers will find her.

The reader is left with a singular image. Skeetah, the oldest brother, sits in the wreckage of their home, and while everyone else is searching for missing children, furniture and cars, Skeetah looks at his brothers and announces, “She will come back to me.” Esch tells us:

“He will watch the dark, the ruined houses, the muddy appliances, the tops of the trees that surround us whose leaves are dying for lack of roots. He will feed the fire, so it will blaze bright as a lighthouse. He will listen for the beat of her tail, the padding of her feet in the mud. He will look into the future and see her emerge into the circle of his fire, beaten dirty by the hurricane so she doesn’t gleam anymore. So, she is the color of his teeth, his eyes, of the bone bounded by his blood, dull but alive, alive, alive, and when he sees her, his face will break and run water.”

And what of Esch, who loves the white dog? She says that China will look at me and know “I am a mother.”

Hopefully, it is apparent that this is a remarkable book. However, it was almost lost in the loud braying and confusion that dominates much of publishing business now. Even so, it won the National Book Award in 2011. Now, after a strange silence, it is beginning to get the attention that it deserves.

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