Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Genre: Fiction (Hurricane Katrina / Southern Fiction / Dog Fighting / Teen Pregnancy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Bloomsbury USA (8/30/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Loved/hated in that this book totally effed me up.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Fourteen year old Esch is pregnant, caring for her absent, violent alcoholic father and three brothers, each needy in their own way, against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina.
Do I like the cover?: Yes, as much of the story centers around a pit bull named China.
First line: China's turned on herself.
Did... I cringe from the first page?: YES. The writing is stellar and so the violence packs a punch. I was winded, and it was good/painful/awful/amazing.
Did... I inhale this book in a single night?: YES. Really, I couldn't shake this book, even when I was horrified and uncomfortable. I had to read on.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy: this is a hard book but one that is moving, thought- and conversation-provoking. Perfect for a book club.
Why did I get this book?: Grim or awful as this may sound, I've been interested in reading narratives about Hurricane Katrina.
Review: This is a book I didn't want to read, but I couldn't stop reading it. The story is gutting -- literally, pulling-out-my-innards painful -- and yet, I couldn't stop thinking about the characters and their story. It hurt to read; it hurt to not read.
This is the first novel I've read that features Hurricane Katrina specifically and the horrific aftermath, and there's a lot in this book that is stomach-turning. Violence, neglect, and sex are depicted with unromantic and blunt honesty, the story of a fractured family struggling to survive in their own way. Fourteen year-old Esch is pregnant and hiding it from her brothers and alcoholic father. Her brother Skeetah is raising China, a pit bull for dog fighting, who has had her first litter. Her youngest brother skates by, desperate for attention, while her other brother Randall is convinced basketball will be the key to escaping this poverty.
Although the narrator is fourteen, this isn't a YA novel; the voice is both young but knowing, a child who has had to grow up too fast. Esch's burgeoning pregnancy and China's whelping are meant to bounce off each other: giving birth, nurturing life, but this is not a book where the girl and dog find safety and hope in each other. Instead, China's litter, her response to her pups, her owner's response, reminds Esch of the love she doesn't have, the lack of mothering in her own life, and very real unknown facing her. What was so good about this book was that Esch was a real, complicated character. She's well read and can't stop thinking in terms of mythology (when China eats one of her puppies, Esch thinks immediately of Medea), a trait I found achingly familiar from my own teenaged years, and it was painful to see how different her life was from mine. Were the novel simply about her life, that would be a moving enough story but the additional impact of Hurricane Katrina provides this low-grade tension since we know what's coming. Honestly, I nearly ground my teeth to nubs in my anxiety to finish.
I don't like doing hard things for the sake of building character, but I do believe in reading tough books now and then because of the enormous impact it has on my perception of the world. This book challenged me -- frankly, at times, it scared me -- but it was so moving, so well-written, that the odd twist of hope and melancholy at the end of the story left a knot in my chest. I can't swallow it away.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to be able to offer a copy of Salvage the Bones to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this simple form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 10/14.