This is where making this list gets hard. Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones, was, by far the best book I read this year. It is way too reductive to call this a Katrina novel, even though the 2005 hurricane broods over the whole story. It is a book about family, mothers, violence, beauty, injustice, and what lives in the land. The story of Esch and her hard-scrabble family on the Mississippi Gulf Coast embodies everything I hope Heartlands is about, at its best. It tells the story of life in America’s often-forgotten places and in doing so it tells us something about America and the human heart.
This is a book that deserves to be read and taught for the generations, part of any 21st century canon we can imagine.
So why is it only #3?
Only because of this strange and arbitrary set of guidelines that gives greater weight to more recent books. Like her more recent book, Sing, Unburied Sing, Ward’s 2011 novel ought to be on anybody’s list. (And if it was this hard to get to #3, imagine how great the top 2 choices are!)
Here’s a piece from my review, which you can read by clicking on the title above:
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.