Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Title: Salvage the Bones: A Novel
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.


  1. This sounds very good albeit very hard. I haven't read any Katrina books, yet, but this might be a good (is that the right word??) place to start...thank you for the review.

  2. Wow, this sounds very intense. I'm not sure I could handle it, but it sounds like it would be worth it. Thanks for your review!

  3. Intense review! I think I'm sort of afraid to read this one!

  4. I had a hard time with this book, but I do agree with you that it was the kind of book you couldn't put down. It felt so rough and raw most of the time, and each situation held its own sadness and fright. I think it was a giant feat of imagination, but I wasn't prepared for the way that it would make me feel, especially the whole plot involving China. This was a wonderful and moving review, and a great tribute to the raw power of the book. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. I want to read this one but I'm afraid to read it at the same time, basically for all the reasons you mention in your review. It seems to be one of those books that will never leave you once you read it.

    Thanks for taking on the challenge of this book and for being a part of the tour.

  6. I've been like OBSESSED with Katrina poetry for so long. I'm going to have to read this book. Totally and completely. The poet, Patricia Smith, wrote some a really wonderful poem about a dog chained to a tree during the storm. You should read that along with this it sounds like. Her poetry collection is titled, Blood Dazzler.

  7. Sounds completely powerful and amazing... great, forthright review.

  8. Wow, you are reading some great books. This one is on my to-read list. You should read City of Refuge by Tom Piazza...very moving ... also about Hurricane Katrina, though in a different way.

    also, here's my recap of the National Book Festival that you were interested in: http://savvyverseandwit.com/2011/09/a-weekend-of-firsts-at-the-2011-national-book-festival.html

  9. @iwriteinbooks: I do recommend it. It's like a novel equivalent of Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke. Painful, necessary, amazing.

    @Col: I know, had I known how undisguised the violence would be, I think I would have wimped out, but I'm glad I read this, even if I am totally scarred.

    @Rhapsody: Yes, I can totally appreciate that, and I feared the book as I read it. Still, it was good, such as it was, just...intense.

    @Heather: Thank you for comment -- the stuff with China was the hardest for me to stomach. All of it. I was just cringing the whole time. I shudder still.

    @HeatherTLC: It was so worth it -- thanks for having me!

    @Cassie: You will absolutely want to get this book then because the writing is so good -- the mixture of mythological references with the real gritty horror of the Gulf -- amazing. Thanks for the rec -- I'm going to look for it this weekend!

    @Bookspersonally: Thank you -- it was incredible.

    @Serena: I've been on another streak -- love it -- although I've had some serious late nights because I can't stop reading! Thanks for the rec -- I've heard of the author (and maybe the book) but will look for them this weekend. And I'm running over now to see your recap -- I'm so jealous!

  10. Wow, wow and wow! I had no idea what this book was about. I sort of glanced at the cover at one point and thought, meh. But your review...wow. I totally want to read it now. I love gritty, but not just for the sake of being gritty.

  11. @Ti: Yes, that's exactly it, gritty but not pointlessly so. It's so good -- skin crawling-ly stressful and yet, beautifully written -- definitely worth picking up!! I think you'd love it!

  12. it does not sound like it is the book for me. But it does sound like a book that I should read anyway

  13. This sounds like such a difficult read but one that I would actually be really interested in. Have you read Zeitoun? It's non-fiction but it's narrative non-fiction so it reads like fiction and it's about Hurricane Katrina. It's crazy! (But really good)

  14. I could not finish this book. For me it was just too much and I think maybe it was just the wrong timing for me to be reading it. So many have said the same thing as you - that it is such a powerful book. Maybe someday I'll pick it up again but not just yet.

  15. This is one that I passed on, but after reading your review and passionate thoughts I'm off to see if the library has a copy available.

    Well done Audra.

  16. This sounds like a very thought-provoking read. Thanks for the giveaway!

  17. I'm so interested in this book and so glad you reviewed it so that I can know if it's worth the read. When I saw it on the list for the prize I was like, do I really want to read a book centered around a dog? Now I guess I do. If you couldn't stop reading it, I must get my hands on it.

  18. I know this is a powerful, intense book and it deal with some subjects I'm not sure I can handle. But I also don't want to put a well-written, important book aside because it might make me uncomfortable. I want to try reading it and see if I can hndle these subjects.

    Thank you for your fantastic review!