In “Salvage the Bones,” Jesmyn Ward immerses readers into the turbulent days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, as seen through the eyes of the Batiste family in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.
Set in a poverty-stricken area called the Pit, the narrative focuses on the lives of the Batiste siblings: Randall, Skeetah (Jason), Esch, and Junior, along with their alcoholic father, Claude. The absence of their mother, who passed away shortly after Junior’s birth, looms large, leaving the children to navigate the world largely on their own.
The story kicks off with Skeetah’s pit bull, China, on the verge of giving birth. China, fiercely loyal only to Skeetah, represents a sliver of hope for financial independence through the sale of her puppies, destined to become fighting dogs.
Meanwhile, Esch navigates a complicated relationship with Manny, Randall’s friend, which takes a dramatic turn when she discovers she’s pregnant with his child.
As Hurricane Katrina approaches, the family’s preparations are makeshift at best, under the somewhat disinterested guidance of their father.
Despite Claude’s warnings, the storm’s gravity eludes the family, who scramble to secure food and reinforce their home with inadequate materials.
The narrative details Skeetah’s efforts to protect China’s new litter from disease, even resorting to theft for their sake. His dedication to China overshadows the looming threat of the hurricane, illustrating his deep bond with the dog.
Esch, on the other hand, struggles with her secret pregnancy, her turmoil coming to a head in a confrontation that culminates in a brutal dog fight at Manny’s cousin Rico’s insistence.
As the storm unleashes its fury, the Batiste family’s fight for survival intensifies, moving from their flooded home to the precarious safety of their grandparents’ attic. The chaos of their escape leads to tragic losses but also reveals Esch’s pregnancy to the family.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the resilience of the Batiste family is tested as they take refuge with Big Henry, a family friend. Skeetah’s unwavering hope for China’s return encapsulates the enduring spirit of the family, suggesting a path forward despite the devastation.
Esch, the novel’s central narrator, embodies resilience and vulnerability. As a teenage girl grappling with her identity and burgeoning womanhood, her pregnancy adds layers of complexity to her character. Esch’s journey through the narrative explores themes of love, loss, and the search for belonging, as she navigates her feelings for Manny and the dynamics of her fractured family.
Skeetah (Jason) Batiste
Skeetah’s profound bond with his pit bull, China, represents a central theme of loyalty and sacrifice. His dedication to China and her puppies showcases his capacity for love and care, starkly contrasting with the harsh realities of his environment. Skeetah’s character arc delves into the depths of familial responsibility and the lengths one will go to protect those they love.
As the eldest sibling, Randall assumes a parental role, symbolizing stability and guidance amidst the chaos of their lives. His aspirations and responsibilities highlight the challenges faced by young individuals in impoverished circumstances, striving for a better life while anchored by familial duties.
The youngest of the Batiste siblings, Junior represents innocence and the longing for familial attention and affection. His character underscores the impact of the family’s struggles on its most vulnerable members, emphasizing the theme of lost childhood within the novel.
The patriarch of the family, Claude’s character is defined by absence and neglect, a reflection of the challenges of fatherhood under the strains of poverty and personal demons. His alcoholism and detachment affect each of his children differently, serving as a catalyst for the family’s resilience in the face of adversity.
More than a pet, China is a pivotal character that embodies themes of motherhood, survival, and strength. Her relationship with Skeetah highlights the novel’s exploration of the bonds that transcend human relationships, illustrating the fierce protectiveness and love that defines family in its many forms.
1. Family and Survival
At the heart of the novel is the Batiste family, whose dynamics and resilience paint a vivid picture of survival in the face of adversity. The family’s struggle is twofold, grappling with the socio-economic challenges of poverty in the Mississippi backwoods and the imminent threat of Hurricane Katrina.
Ward explores how the bonds of family can be both a source of strength and a complex web of obligations and tensions.
The siblings, in the absence of parental guidance, form a makeshift familial unit that navigates the challenges of daily survival and the impending disaster.
This theme highlights the idea that family is not just a biological connection but a survival mechanism, a collective force that confronts the external world’s chaos.
2. The Intersection of Humanity and Nature
The novel intricately explores the relationship between humans and the natural world, particularly through the lens of Hurricane Katrina.
Ward uses the hurricane not just as a plot device but as a force that exposes the vulnerabilities and resilience of the human spirit. The storm’s devastation serves as a backdrop for examining how people interact with their environment, make decisions under pressure, and ultimately find their place within a world that is both beautiful and brutal.
The Batiste family’s struggles before, during, and after the hurricane underscore the theme of human insignificance in the face of nature’s might, while also showcasing the human capacity to adapt, survive, and find meaning in the aftermath of destruction.
3. Identity and Growth
Central to the narrative is the theme of personal identity and growth, particularly through the character of Esch, a teenage girl coming of age in a harsh environment.
Esch’s journey encompasses the discovery of her pregnancy, her complex feelings for Manny, and her role within her family and the larger community. Her experiences reflect broader themes of femininity, motherhood, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood under extraordinary circumstances.
Ward deftly explores how external events, such as the hurricane and the challenges of daily survival in poverty, shape individual identity and personal growth.
Esch’s evolution from a girl into a young woman, mirrored by the broader changes within her family and community, offers a nuanced look at the ways in which personal and collective identities are forged in the crucible of experience.
“Salvage the Bones” is a deeply moving and beautifully written narrative that captures the complexity of family dynamics, the brutality and beauty of nature, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Jesmyn Ward’s ability to weave together the personal and the universal, set against the backdrop of one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent history, makes this novel a compelling, unforgettable and a hundred percent emotional read.