Book Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the span of the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina makes landfall, Salvage the Bones is the story of 14-year-old Esch and her family, who live on the outskirts of the fictional town of Bois Sauvage on a patch of land they call the “Pit.” These characters are closely tied to the land they live on: they swim in the Pit’s muddy waters; eat potatoes growing from its ground; and are familiar with animals from wild dogs to frogs to armadillos.  But their relationship with the land is complicated by poverty and their location in a remote rural area.  There is no garbage pick-up, and certainly no recycling, for folks living in the Pit: Esch and her family “dump [their] garbage in a shallow ditch” and “burn it,” the stench of burnt plastic filling the air they breathe. 

Examples like this one, strewn throughout the novel, powerfully demonstrate the relationship between environmental justice, racial justice, and income inequality. This book does not offer easy answers about such complex issues; nor does it provide any solutions for how to deal with ecological crises and the threat they pose. Indeed, Salvage the Bones raises more questions than answers—difficult questions about humans’ (im)morality and our roles in creating the climate catastrophes that threaten us. 

The book’s characters are complex, their relationships with non-human animals and the natural world neither purely good nor evil.  Esch’s brother Skeetah has an extremely close bond with his pit bull, China, telling his friend Marquise that “some people understand that between man and dog is a relationship. Equal.”  During the peak of the storm, Skeet straps the full-grown dog to his chest and carries her like an infant, even at the risk of his own life. 

Yet, Skeet also uses China to breed puppies which he plans to sell despite knowing the likelihood that they will be raised to use in dog fights.  The tension between Skeet’s love for China and her pups and the pressure he feels to bring in income for the family demonstrates that making the humane choice is not as readily available to him while living in dire poverty.  In an angry argument with his brother over the puppies, Skeet exclaims, “I can make eight hundred dollars off them.  Eight hundred dollars.  Do you know what we can do with eight hundred dollars?” More than once throughout the novel, we see Esch and her brothers on the brink of starvation. Selling China’s puppies is a way of providing food for his family, even as it breaks Skeet’s heart to do it.   

China’s pregnancy is not the only one in Salvage the Bones, as Esch learns she is pregnant days before Katrina hits. Through both China’s role as a new mother and Esch’s role as a soon-to-be-mother, the book raises another difficult ethical question: what it means to bring new life into a world so gravely threatened by ecological crisis. During Katrina, Esch’s family loses two of the newborn puppies to the storm, and Esch herself, an expectant mother, almost drowns to death.  When the worst of the storm has passed, Esch and her brothers venture out into a new world marked by death and devastation: the place they have called home all their lives is now a “smashed landscape,” houses “flipped over on their heads,” the elementary school “smashed flat as a pancake.”  Everywhere Esch looks there are people “half drowned”: “an old white man and old black man camping out under a tarp”; “a family of Vietnamese with sheets shaped into a tent”; “teenage girls and women foraging in the hollow shell of a gas station.” 

The reader’s connection to Esch and her brothers Skeetah, Junior, and Randall, as well as their friend Big Henry, allows us to see through their eyes—and to feel as they do—the utter devastation Katrina leaves in its wake, as well as the fear, grief, and loss which remain long after it is gone.  Ward’s novel forces readers to confront the ongoing trauma and devastation of an event that was, for many of us, experienced from the safe, detached distance of our own homes, part of a surreal 24-hour news cycle that was ever-present for several months and then, gradually, began to fade into the background.

The unforgettable images of Katrina’s wreckage are what readers are left with in the final chapter of Salvage the Bones, but well before the hurricane makes landfall about two-thirds of the way through the novel, we see the foreshadowing of catastrophe and the ways in which the seeds of ecological crisis have been being sown in Bois Sauvage for generations. The landscape has already been drastically impacted by climate change: Esch’s narration constantly mentions heat, dryness, drought, each day “hotter than the one that came before it.”  Esch’s father, a widow with four children, is “obsessed with hurricanes” and with the possibility that the Gulf Coast will become “a new tornado alley.”  He spends all summer before the storm teaching his youngest child, Junior, “the safest places in the house to crouch” and how to “kneel, fold over your thighs, tuck your head between your knees, cover your neck with your bony fingers to protect the soft throat underneath.”  Disaster preparation and the imminent threat of catastrophe are simply a part of life for Esch and her family, presenting a stark reminder that climate catastrophe is not a mere possibility, nor even a distant threat: it is a reality that is with us now, haunting the living and claiming many for dead. 

Survivors of Hurricane Katrina sit on a rooftop
amidst drowned and destroyed houses

Book critic Ron Charles of The Washington Post has written that “Salvage the Bones has the aura of a classic about it,” and indeed, the novel strikes me as perhaps one of the most important works of ecofiction, and of contemporary fiction more generally, to have come out of the early twentieth century. Salvage the Bones is the winner of the 2011 National Book Award in Fiction. Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing also won the National Book Award in Fiction in 2017.  Ward’s other books include her debut novel Where the Line Bleeds and the memoir Men We Reaped.  She is also the editor of the collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race.

Salvage the Bones is among a number of recent works of ecofiction depicting climate catastrophes—past occurrences and future possibilities, both real and fictive—and their impact on humans, other animals, the landscape, and the natural world.  Other such books include Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun; Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible; Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations, Jackie Polzin’s Brood, and Rodman Philbrick’s Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina

Melissa Dennihy
Melissa Dennihy, Ph.D., is an English professor at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York, where her work focuses in part on ecofiction and environmental humanities. You can find her on Twitter, where she's often tweeting about books: @MelissaDennihy.
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