Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I have already griped about some of the slips of detail in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel. Errors of detail shake the trust an author must have from her readers. I was shaken by some of Ward’s specifics, but stirred by others.

The beautiful evocations of late childhood in Salvage the Bones offset the mistakes of tractors that drive like cars and oddly formal playground basketball. Ward deftly sculpts mental images of those things she knows best.

A fifteen year-old* girl named Esch narrates this novel of a struggling black family in rural Mississippi. The family consists of four children (Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior; three boys and a girl) and two largely absent parents. Esch’s mother died giving birth to the baby, Junior, and her father is usually unavailable in any productive sense due to perpetual drunkenness. With the tragedy of their mother’s death behind them by several years, we watch this kids as Hurricane Katrina, twelve days away at the start of the novel, looms ever larger over their lives.

The older siblings are all preoccupied with something outside the family: Randall is trying to obtain a basketball scholarship, Skeetah’s pet pit bull (China) is pregnant, Esch is in love with and pregnant by a handsome boy named Manny. Junior tags along with whoever will let him.

Ward captures sibling dynamics and the harshness of life for Esch and her brothers while capturing the bigness of teenage life, as it is experienced by teens, at least. When the older kids and some friends go camping, Skeetah shoots a squirrel for dinner. At the campsite, Skeetah butchers the small animal. He starts by cutting off the head, then:

He pitches the head into the underbrush like a ball…

On an adventure to a nearby farm, the reader feels like he too is crouching on the edge of the pasture watching Skeetah making his way past cows to a barn. Memories of playing in sheets hung on a clothesline feel almost like the reader’s own:

Mama washed all the sheets for both houses at once, and there was so much bedding that Daddy had to hand extra lines…The sheets were so thin we could almost see through them. They made cloudy rooms, and we played hide-and-seek in them. In the winter, they made our faces wet and achingly cold, but in the summer, it was so hot the sheets didn’t stay wet long, but we smashed our faces into them anyway, trying to find the hidden cool….[W]e let our hands hover over them, shoved our noses into them to see if we could see the other person running down the next billowing hallway.

There is much to love about this book. The characters are very strong. Esch and her siblings are excellently round characters. Skeetah, particularly, strolls out of the book as a fully formed person. Ward has great talent.

Despite my praise, I do feel the need to point out that there were aspects I found distracting (small details amiss), the sort of thing that tips off inhabitants of The Matrix to the artificiality of their world. Not everyone notices, of course. The strengths of characterization and story, which are considerable, override the minor failings for many. Shoehorning the story into twelve days did not work so well for me and gave too much focus to the hurricane. This is not a “Hurricane Katrina” book. I think the book would be stronger if it placed less focus on the storm.

It is not a perfect book. I liked it, though. I loved it best when it was about kids making their way in a teenage world or remembering a few short years ago when they were playing in “billowing hallways”. This is not the “Great American Novel”, but, if you read it, the characters are so real that you will genuinely hurt along with them.

*The promotional materials say “she’s fourteen”, but the math does not seem to work. Junior “is seven, and he is curious” while Esch was “eight [and] of no help” when her mother dies giving birth to Junior. Esch cannot be fourteen because she must turn fifteen on or before Junior’s seventh birthday (on his first birthday, she had to be nine, etc.). (This is also the summer after her tenth-grade year which, ordinarly, means an American student is fifteen or sixteen.) Bloomsbury how can you not know the age of the protagonist of the novel you publish?

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9 Responses to Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

  1. Sarah says:

    Kerry, I absolutely agree that anything that jars the reader inhibits the reader’s connection with the work. Classic example for me is in translations, for example, an American translation of a Russian novel: finding words like sidewalk, faucet or fall (for autumn.) Of course that isn’t wrong and it’s perfect for the US reader, but for me it shatters my illusion of Russian-ness. My own fault, of course, for not sourcing English translations.

    Happily I know very little about tractors, and less about baseball, so I only need consider the positives you mention for ‘Salvage the Bones.’ The quote describing the washing is fantastic, I think I could find a lot to like in this novel.

    • Kerry says:

      The points are fairly technical points of detail that most people will either not notice or not care about or both. The reader and I had lost a little connectivity by the ending, so the climactic storm scene (spoiling nothing as the days count down) did not quite work for me. I suspect that’s because of my earlier reactions. Others absolutely loved it and thought it the strongest part of the novel. The scenes I reference and others like them were the strongest parts of the novel for me, and they were very strong.

      That washing scene is fantastic. I am positive Jesmyn has played like that herself and it shines through in how perfectly she describes it.

      There is a lot to like in this novel.

  2. Just picked this up and have it to read soon, interesting review, thanks.

  3. Biblibio says:

    I typically don’t notice the small details that don’t quite fit in, but when I do… you’re right. It changes the way we read the book. Even though I doubt I’d pick up on any of the issues, I wasn’t interested enough in the first place to convince myself of approaching Salvage the Bones anytime soon. Though I have to ask: with teenage characters at the center of the novel, would it be possible to market it as young adult? It seems like the type of book that could go either way, but for some interesting reason has ended up on the “adult” side of the aisle…

    • Kerry says:

      I suspect that some of the sex scenes and the notion of very early teen sex scared publishers away from marketing the book as a young adult novel. I am not familiar with how much sex there is in “young adult” fiction, but I suspect this was a little to gritty to be marketed that way. I, personally, wouldn’t recommend it to a high schooler.

  4. leviscato says:

    Hi Kerry,
    I’m attending Jesmyn Ward’s event at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and stumbled across your blog looking for other views on her book. I love that quote about the washing; how could you not love a book which brings you so totally into the action? On the other hand, I completely agree that the illusion must be held together by the little details more so than the big ones. Thanks for a great review!

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you for the comment. The description of the kids playing in the washing is one of several sections of writing that made this read well worth it for me, despite my misgivings as to whether the novel ultimately holds together as a complete and polished work of art. I hope you enjoy the Sydney Writer’s Festival…..wish I was there!

  5. […] or plot; I haven’t gotten to reading the book yet. But Kerrie over at Hungry Like the Woolf quoted this brilliant passage that was the clincher in making me want to read […]

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