Katrina doesn’t arrive until Salvage the Bones is almost over, but the hurricane has always been coming. She broods over the whole of Jesmyn Ward’s epic 2011 novel, even when the only one who seems to know she’s on the way is Esch’s Daddy, whose preparations seem excessive to his four children living with him in the ramshackle house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
It’s appropriate to call the hurricane ‘she.’ Not just because she has a woman’s name, like Camille, the 1969 storm that was the last marker of destruction. But also because this is a book, despite all the male characters, about women and mothers in particular: The absent mother who died giving birth to Esch’s little brother, Junior. China, the great white pit bull, who gives birth to puppies in the vivid opening scene and then turns on them later. Medea, the scorned woman from Esch’s Greek mythology book, who loves fiercely and kills her children. Esch, whose unexpected pregnancy troubles the landscape of her small world of Bois Sauvage. And finally Katrina herself, the greatest mother of them all, who, when Esch dares to comfort her brother by saying, “It’s going to be all right,” laughs by throwing a tree on Daddy’s truck. (238)
In 2005, Jesmyn Ward rode out Katrina with her mother in a truck near DeLisle, the Mississippi town she has fictionalized as Bois Sauvage in both this novel and her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. She told NPR in a 2011 interview that she “understood then how that hurricane…had unmade the world, tree by water by house by person.” (262) As Esch says, Katrina “left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.” (255)
But long before the storm gets there, the family has been salvaging. Skeet, Esch’s brother, is salvaging linoleum from the abandoned house next door that housed their grandparents—Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph—in order to build a floor to protect China’s puppies from the parvo that he is sure lurks in the soil around the Pit, the clearing where they live. Daddy wants the boards to cover the windows in the house next door.
There’s only a short distance from salvage to sauvage, the French word for wild, and in the savage forest of Bois Sauvage it’s hard to see what’s being saved. Deep in the trees, young men gather to fight their dogs, saving what face they can through vicarious violence. Esch and Skeet remember their mother’s final words and moments differently, yet in ways that help them hold on to what they need. Daddy pulls up old jugs to fill with water for the inevitable flood.
Ward has turned her exquisite attention on a scene that is universal just because it is so particular. Sure, it’s Mississippi in August, “hotter than the bright air with bees drowsing in the crape myrtle” (146). But it’s also a singular African-American family holding each other so tight that at times you can’t tell whether it’s love or a death grip. The teenaged Esch is a lyrical narrator who will let you see this scene with another light, one that rages against the wounds delivered but sees something to love in even the most unlikely people and places.
Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award and, unlike the homes on the coast, it will no doubt stand the test of time. Some of the scenes, such as the twined stories of China attacking her pup and Daddy wrestling a derelict tractor, are among the finest I have ever read. It is Faulknerian in its texture, but thoroughly modern in its attention to black characters who never fully come alive in Faulkner. Ward nods to Faulkner, Welty, and Melville, but she is doing something absolutely new. She is putting us in a place we may not have been before and bringing all the fierce beauty she can claim to bear on us.
You can just hear Ward whispering to her words the same command Skeet breathes in China’s ear before entering the dog fighting pit, “Make them know.”