In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through the southern United States, and became the sixth strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. Salvage the Bones describes the life of one poor, rural family during 12 days before, during, and after the disaster. The narrator, 15-year-old Esch, lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi with her father and brothers Randall (17), Skeetah (16), and Junior (8). Their mother died after Junior’s difficult birth, and their father has lived in an alcoholic fug ever since. Randall spends most of his time playing basketball with friends, hoping to go to a special camp the family really can’t afford. Skeetah cares for his dog, China, and her litter of puppies. China is a trained fighting dog; Skeetah hopes her puppies command a high price — perhaps enough to pay for Randall’s basketball camp.
Esch watches all the men from a distance, and escapes into her mythology book. Esch dreams of a better life, but she’s also just discovered she is pregnant. The father is Randall’s friend Manny, who uses Esch for sex. Esch has a history of casual sexual encounters, but to her, Manny is different and she hopes that one day he’ll take her seriously.
The first few chapters paint a vivid picture of life in Bois Sauvage, and the great divide between black families like Esch’s and the more affluent whites. This divide is illustrated most dramatically through dog fighting, which provides a way to make money, but wins and losses also establish social status within the community. The dog fighting scenes are horrific and have put many people off reading this book. I can’t say I blame them. And yet, I was struck by Skeetah’s love for China, the sacrifices he made for her well-being, and the courageous acts he performed on her behalf.
Soon there are reports of a big storm in the gulf. Esch’s father tries to prepare, even as the reports begin to show something really big is on the way. I grew more apprehensive with each passing day, and I found the scenes describing the storm and its aftermath quite emotional and intense. Everything changed in the space of a few hours:
there is nothing but mangled wood and steel in a great pile, and suddenly there is a great split between now and then, and I wonder where in the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it. (p. 251)
Jesmyn Ward writes from experience. In a short essay at the end of the book, she describes living through Katrina when it ripped through Delisle, Mississippi. The emotional impact of surviving a tragedy permeates this well-written and moving novel.