Jesmyn Ward’s SALVAGE THE BONES
“Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”
This book won the National Book Award in the US last year and the instant I found out it was set around Hurricane Katrina I knew I had to read it. Unfortunately it has taken me until now to read it and I missed the author at the Sydney Writers Festival! But that’s the great thing about books, they’re always there waiting for you to be ready to read them.
I am fascinated about books that deal with Hurricane Katrina, both fiction and non fiction. Whilst being a cataclysmic storm that almost wiped a whole city of the map it also exposed the raw underbelly of America and its many hypocrisies particularly in regards to race and the socio-economic underclass.
One of the most outstanding pieces about Hurricane Katrina is Spike Lee’s documentary When The Levees Broke. This is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen as is the follow up If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise. This led me to read Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge, which is a superb history of what happened not just to New Orleans but the whole of Louisiana before, during and after the hurricane. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is another brilliant non fiction book on the subject (however the authenticity of the story may now be compromised). There is also a fabulous crime novel by James Lee Burke, The Tin Roof Blowdown. David Simon, creator of The Wire, has also tapped into the vein that Katrina opened with his brilliant new series Treme.
Jesmyn Ward adds to this canon with Salvage The Bones. This is a microcosm of the 12 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina told through the eyes of fifteen year old Esch. Esch lives in Bois Sauvage, a small coastal Mississippi town, with her three brothers and practically absent father. She lost her mother when her younger brother Junior was born and the siblings have pretty much raised themselves. They are impoverished and living day-to-day but they are not without hope and dreams. Randall, the eldest brother, dreams of basketball as his escape while Skeetah, the third brother, is utterly devoted to his pit bull China, whom he trains to fight and which has just had a prized litter of puppies.
Esch however steals the novel and your heart. She is lost in the world of Greek mythology particularly the tales of Medea and the Argonauts. She is full of passion but also loneliness. She tries to fill this hole inside her by sleeping with her brothers’ friends. One of whom she has now fallen pregnant to.
As Hurricane Katrina bears down on Esch and her brothers their fragile existence threatens to be blown away before the storm ever hits. This is a poignant and powerful novel that echoes the classics of American literature. Jesmyn Ward expertly balances and inextricably weaves together beauty and brutality, sadness and hope, magic and menace, life and death. The dog fight scene towards the end of the novel is the perfect example of something so horrifying and savage yet immensely beautiful and tender in its lyrical and emotional description. This is a book that won’t leave you once you let it in.