Jesmyn Ward and Salvage the Bones
You are fifteen, poor, black, and motherless as this book opens. Dad drinks, and isn’t around much. You are the only girl in a family of brothers. Having sex is no big deal, and there is one guy you really like, Manny.
Your oldest brother’s pit bull is having puppies, and you are having trouble with throwing up most of what you eat, especially every morning. Dad says a hurricane is coming, but he’s said that before, no big deal.
As this book opens, it has the feel of a myth of the nightmare kind. We know, because we have the benefit of hindsight, that the impending storm, Katrina, will be catastrophic. The Batiste family has already suffered a catastrophic storm with the death of their Mama, just after the birth of her last child. Throughout the book, we watch these children suffer the daily absence of their mother, raising one another, squabbling, but tenderly looking after one another.
If someone had told me about this book, I don’t think I would have wanted to read it. Amazon.com kept telling me I needed to read it, so finally, I did. From the opening page, I was in a world utterly alien from my own, and yet a world I could understand and inhabit. There are worse things than being poor, and one of them is heartless. This family has heart; they are loyal to one another, they look after one another and they sacrifice for one another. For all the violence – and there is a lot of violence – there is also beauty.
There is the familial love, and there is the love between Skeet, the oldest brother, and his dog, China. There is friendship, and good people who give you refuge in the aftermath of the storm. There is the stunning numbness of surviving the worst hurricane ever.
Jesmyn West has a deft touch, with the language, with the interweaving of the Medea myth, with non-verbal communication, with the complexities of families and love. This is a book worth reading.
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