This week marks the 7th anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast states like an avenging Fury, leaving death and destruction in her wake. The history of Katrina is one not only of nature's power, but also of human frailty, courage and survival. Jesmyn Ward lived through that storm, sheltering in a car when a white family refused hers refuge, and from her experience comes what is perhaps Katrina's most positive legacy -- a novel that is both muscular and poetic, violent and tender – and one I will read again and again in years to come.
In "Salvage the Bones," which covers the 12-day period leading up to and culminating in the terrifying day Hurricane Katrina makes landfall, we see a story of loss, loyalty, love and survival through the eyes of Esch Batiste, a bright, insightful and newly pregnant 15-year-old. Because her mother, Rose, died giving birth to Esch's youngest brother seven years before the story begins, Esch, the only girl in a family of four children, has no woman to whom she can turn for guidance. Her father, a man of unpredictable anger fueled by the alcohol he uses to drown his grief, has little time or tenderness for his children. Lacking parental nurture, the older kids – Randall, 17; Skeetah, 16; and Esch – take care of each other and of their baby brother, Junior, who is 7, and seems...damaged.
Esch is reading a book of Greek mythology, and finds many connections to the story of Medea in her own life, a theme that runs throughout the novel. At first, she sees herself as Medea and the father of her unborn child, 19-year-old Manny, as Jason. She is in love for the first time, but Manny, who is a thoroughly despicable young man with another girlfriend, just uses her for sex. Like Medea, Esch recognizes that her love for Manny is hopeless, but is powerless to resist it. She also sees Skeetah's beloved pit bull, China, as Medea when the dog gives birth to her first litter on the first day of the story and later kills one of her puppies. She connects Skeetah, the brother she feels closest to, with Medea's brother, but ultimately, she realizes that Hurricane Katrina is the epitome of Medea. Thinking about the storm, Esch says:
"She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as newborn babies, as blind puppies.…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."
Clearly, Esch is an exceptional young woman, and her creator is an exceptional young writer. Ms. Ward makes us root for Esch and her beleaguered family because she endows her characters with great dignity, passion and courage. The Batiste family lives a hardscrabble life near the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, La. The author paints a brilliant picture of their surroundings: a yard full of junked cars, scrap metal, old refrigerators and washing machines, and dilapidated sheds, where feral chickens and the occasional pig scratch out what sustenance they can. The kids manage to survive on a diet that consists mainly of canned goods, hot dogs and Ramen Noodles. Junior is particularly fond of the latter, which he often eats uncooked, crunching the dry noodles after licking the contents of the flavoring packet.
While Katrina plays a terrifying role in Ms. Ward's novel, it is the unfolding stories of the children that engage and move the reader. Central to the tale is the story of love and loyalty found in the relationship between Skeetah and his beloved pit-bull, China, whose white coat glows with an unearthly light. The boy and his dog are fiercely protective of one another, and Skeetah spends most of his time in the shed where China gives birth to her mostly doomed litter. In a horrifically savage scene that marks the novel's turning point, Skeetah decides to let China fight Kilo, the dog belonging to his enemy, even though she is weakened from giving birth. It is as if he sees China as an avenging angel who will right the wrongs done to his sister and brother. "Make them know," he calls to her.
"China hears….She is fire. China flings her head back into the air as if eating oxygen, gaining strength….She bears down, curling to him [Kilo], a loving flame….He roils beneath her. She chews. Fire evaporates water. ‘Make them know make them know make them know they can't live without you,' Skeetah says. China hears."
As you can see, Jesmyn Ward is a powerful, poetic writer. She has the gift of making the commonplace sublime, but at the same time, she never lets us forget that her characters are human beings. In their struggle to survive not only Hurricane Katrina, but also the loss of everything they have loved, the Batiste family's tenacity, loyalty and devotion inspires and humbles the reader. We see these traits in Skeetah, as he waits for China, who has been separated from him in the storm, and in the eldest brother, Randall's, constant care of little Junior. Even Esch discovers that she can count on her family and friends to give her what Manny would not. In a touching scene at the end of the book, Big Henry, one of Randall's buddies, and a constant presence in the story, precipitates this discovery. When Esch tells him that her unborn baby has no daddy, Big Henry replies: "You wrong….This baby got plenty daddies….Don't forget you always got me."
"Salvage the Bones" is one of the best books I've ever read, and is not to be missed. It reminds us that although we may be left with nothing but the clothes on our backs, if we have love, loyalty, and courage, we can survive; we can, literally, salvage the bones.
Jane Julius Honchell, who resides in Glenburn Twp., is a well-known features writer and columnist. She is an associate professor at Keystone College, La Plume, where she serves as Director of Theater. "See Jane Read" appears monthly in The Abington Journal.