A pregnant 14-year-old Mississippian narrates this fierce, fine novel, winner of the 2011 National Book Award.
Esch is 14, shy, motherless, impoverished, living on the edge in more ways than one, with an alcoholic dad, three intense brothers and a nasty pit bull. But those are the least of her troubles. Her home in the tattered fictional hamlet of Bois Sauvage, Miss., is about to be smacked by Hurricane Katrina. Soon she'll be clambering through a hole in the attic onto a house swirling on raging waters.
"Salvage the Bones," by young Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward, could have gone wrong so many ways. It could have been maudlin, preachy, predictable. It is none of those things. It is a gripping, tightly told tale, and a fine novel.
Esch narrates her story over 12 chapters, each recounting a sweltering day leading up to and during Katrina's arrival. Her daddy, a drunk who nonetheless knows which way the wind blows, tries to prepare his property, aptly called the Pit, and his fractured family. Yet the story's suspense lies less in wondering how they will fare in the hurricane than in watching how each faces individual trials. Brother Randall dreams of a basketball scholarship. Brother Skeetah, obsessed with his menacing, moneymaking pit bull, fights with his father and softens only for Esch. Little brother Junior follows them around picking up survival strategies, from sharing ramen noodles to swamp-swimming to shoplifting.
But it is Esch who makes this novel pulse. Pregnant by Manny, a cocky friend of her brothers, she struggles to grasp her condition, and to learn how to live, not just with a hurricane bearing down, but through every difficult day. Yet her life is rich -- in adventure, in love for her motley little family, in shards of beauty in the Pit and nearby woods, where "animals dart between the valleys of shadow" and "birds trill up through pathways of sunlight." Esch is rattled by teenage lust and love and by the stories she's read at school in Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" and Faulkner novels.
China, the dust- and blood-caked pit bull kept from attacking family members only by Skeetah's hand, is a character, too, one we alternately root for and want to die. When she nurses her puppies, her eyes "shine like an oil lamp" and "her tail does not wag."
Even Katrina is a character, cast with comparisons to the mythological creatures Esch has read about -- a savage mother, a vengeful goddess. It arrives thusly: "There is a lake growing in the yard. It moves under the broken trees like a creeping animal, a wide-nosed snake. Its head disappears under the house where we stand, its tail wider and wider, like it has eaten something greater than itself, and that great tail stretches out behind it into the woods, toward the Pit. ... The wind ripples the water and it is coming for us."
Fiction though it is, this may be the best account you'll read of Hurricane Katrina. Ward draws much of her story, its tone a wise blend of detachment and ferocity, from her own hardscrabble experiences. In her epigraph, she quotes both Deuteronomy and Outkast. Rest assured that epigraphs in others' novels to come will draw from this one's powerful words. File it under "future classic."
Pamela Miller is a night city editor at the Star Tribune.