Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward — 272 pgs

Salvage the Bones: A NovelIt’s the summer of 2005 and Hurricane Katrina is threatening the Gulf Coast. Fourteen year old Esch and her unconventional family are living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi and each member of her clan is beset by their own drama. For Esch, it’s is the fact that she’s recently learned she’s pregnant by a boy who’s neither romantically inclined toward her nor compassionate. Esch’s brother Randall is trying to make it to basketball camp where he’s sure to be noticed by collegiate scouts, while her father is desperately trying to make their house hurricane ready in between bouts of heavy drunkenness. But it’s middle child Skeetah’s drama that really takes center stage. Skeet’s beloved female pit bull China has just birthed 4 puppies, and it’s up to him to see that these little balls of fluff survive amidst the chaos and abject poverty. Complicating matters is the fact that Esch and her brothers are basically raising themselves in desperate destitution, as their father doesn’t seem capable of caring for them and things are only getting more dire. When the safety of the puppies is threatened, Skeetah goes to extreme lengths to keep them alive, while Esch tries desperately to hide her growing belly from her father and brothers. Meanwhile the hurricane reaches category 5 status and the family is unable to evacuate. Soon events begin to explode into one another upon the family, and it will take all the will they have to come out on the other side. But their future is far from certain, and where some will rise, some will fall. Deeply penetrating and hauntingly dark, this is the story of one family’s desperate struggle to survive through one of the fiercest storms on record.

When I initially started reading this book, I became a little concerned. While this is ostensibly the story of one family’s fight for survival amidst a chaotic storm, it was also a story that had a lot of uncomfortable subjects housed under this premise. First off, there was the issue of a pregnant fourteen year old, which when you really think about it, is a soul-sucking situation that has no easy answers. The other problem I was worried about was that the pit bull that is part of this story is a fighting dog. I’m not sure if many of my readers are aware of this, but I own a pit bull, and he’s possibly the most docile and affectionate dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning. Needless to say, fighting pit bulls are very upsetting to me, and something I don’t necessarily want to read about. I took a chance anyway, and alternated between thinking it was a huge mistake and appreciating the honesty of the story in equal measure.

It was neither an easy nor a feel-good read. The family is one of the poorest and most emotionally damaged I’ve ever come across in the pages of a book. Their home is built in a place they call the pit, and they survive on almost nothing at all. Having lost their mother many years ago, their father is ancillary to their lives, and at times he seems almost comical in his aloofness and disregard. That is, until he gets drunk and becomes violent. His four children basically fend for themselves and have created an extended family out of the other adolescents that live in their area. They run wild and free, and there’s no guiding influence on them. The story is narrated by Esch, a bookish yet sexually promiscuous young girl who is as much a mother to all of them as she is a confused and scared little girl. Her attachments to her siblings is intense, and it appears that she is trying to save them all, with little success.

The second thread of this story revolves around Skeetah and his dog China. It was oddly conflicting to read about because while I think readers naturally want to identify with animal characters in the books they read, this dog was not the cute and cuddly type. She was fierce and there was a sense of unbidden violence in her attitude at all times. Even when birthing and caring for her puppies, she was aggressive and barely subdued. This doesn’t affect Skeetah’s love for her, and in some ways, he idealizes the dog and treats her with more love and compassion than his human counterparts. I sensed a lot of transference in Skeetah and saw the love he had for China was an offshoot of the love he couldn’t give to his family. I also lost patience with him regarding the dog fighting. Those scenes weren’t overly graphic, but they were highly upsetting to me. Part of me wishes I knew more about this book going in, because there was just no payoff for me to be reading such a dire tale.

When the storm rolls in, things begin to happen very quickly, and none of them are good. Emotions and tensions reach the boiling point, and secrets and motivations are revealed. As Katrina rips her way across the land, what was once a struggle for a relatively normal life becomes a struggle for survival. I think that Ward did an incredible job of making this story and her characters come to life, and though it was tough going, I was reluctantly invested in all that was going on. I sometimes think difficult and painful books can be undeniably beautiful and shake you to the core, but in this case, it was all so messy and painful that it was hard to appreciate in that way. I partially blame myself for not knowing enough about this book to guard myself against its potent powers, and I think if I were the type of reader that could hold myself at arm’s length from the things I read, I would have been better served here.

I can’t really say this is a story that I relished, but it did evoke some powerful emotions that I didn’t even know I carried around. It’s a story that was painful for a lot of reasons, and most of my disillusionment had to do with the plight of the dogs. It would be a hard book for an animal lover, I think, but it does genuinely speak to the power and impetus for human survival in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Emotionally sensitive readers might want to avoid this one, or at least be very aware of what this book contains and where it goes. It was a shocking book, but also gripping and rich with symbolism and raw human emotion. A complicated read.


Author Photo About the Author

Jesmyn Ward is a former Stegner fellow at Stanford and Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Her novels, Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, are both set on the Mississippi coast where she grew up. Bloomsbury will publish her memoir about an epidemic of deaths of young black men in her community. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Alabama.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Monday, September 5th:A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, September 6th:So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Wednesday, September 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, September 12th:Wandering Thoughts of a Scientific Housewife
Wednesday, September 14th:Caribousmom
Thursday, September 15th:Linus’s Blanket
Monday, September 19th:Book Addiction
Wednesday, September 21st:The Scarlet Letter
Monday, September 26th:Well Read Wife
Tuesday, September 27th:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, September 28th:Mocha Momma
Thursday, September 29th:Peeking Between the Pages


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

19 comments:

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I don't think I could read this one. I appreciate your honest review.

Kathy said...

What a great review. I do think I'll try this one, it sounds totally different! Thanks

Sandy Nawrot said...

My first thought was "oh no, a pregnant 14 year old!". (My pediatrician informed me that the statistics show that sexual activity starts at the average age of 14. Praise Jesus no.) My second thought was "oh no, a dog story!". Then the third thought was "oh no, a hurricane!". I have hurricane baggage. I fear this book would rip me into pieces.

bermudaonion said...

Wow, that sounds like an emotionally draining book. What's sad is that I'm sure there are children who live lives just like that.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

How funny - I had the same reactions as Sandy, although in a different order - oh no a dog story was number one! :--) My nephew has always had pit bulls and they have been the sweetest, gentlest dogs ever. I suppose it depends on how they are bred and raised. Re the pregnant 14 year old, think of all those cultures through history and even today who marry girls off (to WAY older men needless to add) as soon as they menstruate. Ugh! I remember in one book (maybe Birth of Venus by Dunant) when the female protagonist tried to hide it when she got her first period. Thinking too of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis....

Heather J. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
heathertlc said...

I'm a huge fan of pit bulls myself (my previous dog was a pit mix, and we currently have a 120lb rottweiler) so the idea of fighting dogs makes my skin crawl. Still, it is - unfortunately - a reality in today's word. I can see that this wouldn't be an easy book to read but it sounds like it made an impact.

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

oh crap, now you have me concerned. I haven't started reading this yet but I am on the tour too. I didn't know there was a fighting pitbull! My mom has a pit, and like your dog, he is the sweetest, most loving dog ever. So I totally do not get the dog fighting thing and it pisses me off. So we'll have to see what I think of this one. I'm going to try to go in with an open mind.

Jenny said...

I don't think I could read the dog-fighting scenes, and I know I couldn't read the Katrina ones. I had a hard time reading a book about the Flood of 1927, and that wasn't even about Katrina.

Marybeth said...

Just popping by to say hi and thanks for your kind words. Woo hoo! Not long now...

Jenners said...

It sounds very very intense … even if you didn't add in the Katrina stuff. I'm not sure I'm ready to read this right now. And I'm sorry it hit such a personal note with you regarding the dogs. As always, a wonderfully balanced and thorough review.

Jenny said...

Huh this actually sounds sort of good but in an emotionally gut wrenching way, lol. I would have trouble with the dog fighting thing though... Actually I'm sort of scared of pits mainly because I don't know much about them and haven't been around them much, but I did have a client once who had a pit who was seriously the sweetest dog ever.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Not surprisingly for me, this brought out a huge reaction from me in regards to the treatment of animals. There are so many people in the world that are living this very same story. The tough thing for me is it has all of the elements that I unfortunately just can't read about; the biggest being the Pit Bull segment. I'm just not comfortable with that messaging since I have always been around Pit Bulls and will loudly proclaim that ANY dog's behavior is based on nurture, not nature, as you well know having one of these incredible animals as part of your family. I applaud you for reading this story - I know it must have been difficult! Your honest reviews are so refreshing!

TheBookGirl said...

I think I fall into all the categories you mentioned of readers who might be better advised to avoid this one: dog lover, a bit too sensitive in the way things I read affect me, and somewhat put off by books dealing with issues of teenage sexuality.

I can empathize with your observations about wishing you had known more before undertaking this one. I had that reaction The Homecoming of Samuel Lake -- I thought it was very well-written, but had I known of the strong thread of animal/child abuse that was integral to the story, I never would have picked it up.

LisaMM said...

Hi Heather, I just wanted to say that I think you're a truly gifted reviewer; always so thorough and honest. Thank you so much for this review and for being on the tour. I try to give as much info as possible when pitching a book because I never know how some subject matter will affect a person, but in this case I didn't know about the dogs. Thanks again :)

Amy said...

This does sound incredibly emotional, sounds like it was also a worthwhile read in a way though, or at least the family of the story and their struggles. Thanks for this great review.

Aths said...

I would usually have stayed away from this book but only because of the Hurricane Katrina. I try to stay away from books on that subject because I feel they have been over-commercialized. But I like the way it is handled here, and there does seem to be a lot going on too.

Amy said...

This is a terrific review, Heather. I didn't know what this book was about but now I know I can't read it because I would have to skip over one story-line!And the rest of the story sounds as if it just wrings the emotions out of you.

Wendy said...

This is a great review, Heather. I agree with you about China - she is one tough dog, not easy to love, and is just about on the edge of violence in every scene - and yet, despite my abhorrence to dog fighting and my anger at the way animals are used in this manner, I felt that China was the central figure in this novel and made the perfect symbol of what this family was all about. I'm posting my review on Wednesday...I was really blown away by this book, in large part because of the exceptional writing.

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