Study Guide

Salvage the Bones

by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones Summary

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

“The First Day: Birth in a Bare-Bulb Place”

China, the pit bull, has gone into labor, but she looks nothing like Esch’s mother looked when she was giving birth to Esch's youngest sibling, Junior. Mama had given birth to all four children right there in the house. Esch was only eight at the time so she was of no help to her mother, but Mama had told everyone that she did not need any help. Daddy said that Esch and her two older brothers, Randall and Skeetah, had been easy births, but Junior’s birth was hard. He came into the world purple and blue, and Mama did not want to go to the hospital. Later, Daddy dragged her to the truck to take her anyway, and the children never saw her again. Now, as China suffers in labor, the only person she will let near her is sixteen-year-old Skeetah, who tries to keep her relaxed. Skeetah had her mated with a male pit bull that Manny’s cousin enters into illegal dogfights. China births her first puppy, a large, reddish-orange male that Skeetah says will one day be a killer. The next one comes out backward, a white puppy with black spots. His tongue sticks out—he is dead. The next three are birthed without incident, and when they think she is done, China gets up and goes to the corner of the shed. She spills the afterbirth, and when she walks away, Skeetah sees something moving. A brindle-colored runt has come out last, and luckily, the puppy is breathing.

Outside, Daddy gets the house ready for possible hurricanes, because in summer there are always hurricanes. He can feel a storm coming. He sends Junior under the house to fetch jugs so that they can be filled with water. Meanwhile, Manny arrives at the house—he is nineteen, two years older than Randall—and the two shoot basketball together. While the boys play, Daddy tells Esch to wash the bottles, but one breaks in her hand, and the blood mingles in the puddled water near her feet. She wants Manny to see her, but...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

“The Second Day: Hidden Eggs”

The morning after China gives birth, Esch wakes to the sound of hammering. Skeetah is outside building a kennel for the puppies—he is amazed that China gave birth to five living puppies and wants to see them thrive. Skeetah does not want to abandon the task, so Esch goes off alone to look for breakfast. Her mother taught her how to scan the yard for hidden eggs, but for Esch, the task is still hard work that requires concentration. Esch thinks that the only two things that have ever been easy for her to do are swimming and sex. She lost her virginity at age twelve to Skeetah’s best friend, Marquise, in the backseat of her father’s dump truck. She learned to swim when she was six—her father had picked her up and thrown her in the Pit, but she did not get pulled down by the water and used her limbs to stay on the surface.

At the breakfast table, Junior is pouting because he does not want to eat the eggs and prefers to eat dry noodles. Esch takes out the plate of eggs to Skeetah so that China can eat them instead. Esch notices that the dog’s teats look like human breasts, and suddenly she runs outside the shed and vomits in the dirt.

Later, Big Henry arrives and Daddy tries to scam beer off him. Skeetah comes from the shed and says that he needs to buy dog food, so Big Henry offers a ride and Esch tags along with them. They go to the grocery store in St. Catherine, which is packed with people buying provisions for the impending hurricane. Inside, Esch sneaks off to hide a pregnancy test in the band of her shorts, and Skeetah broods over the dog food; he must get the most expensive brand. On the way home, the trio witnesses a car accident. A man has run his car into a tree, and a woman is lying on the road like she is sleeping. The man appears disoriented, so Big Henry offers assistance. He takes the man’s cellular telephone to give directions to the 911 operator, who asks him to remain at the scene until help arrives. Skeetah is angry. He assumes the man and the woman are having an affair and therefore not worthy of their help; besides, he wants to return to help China with her puppies. Big Henry makes them stay.

At home, Esch thanks Big Henry for the ride. In the bathroom, Esch runs water for the tub and pees on the stick of the pregnancy test. She sets it on the edge of the tub as she climbs in, careful not to knock it into the water. The two lines turn blue, and Esch recalls the directions on the package. She is pregnant.

Chapter 3 Summary

“The Third Day: Sickness in the Dirt”

Esch tries hard to sleep, but the truth of her pregnancy keeps her awake. Right now, pregnancy means vomiting from the minute Esch wakes up in the morning. She hugs the toilet while her brothers scream at her from outside the bathroom door. She tells them that she is shaving her legs and hopes that they do not notice her condition. Esch goes back to bed, and her father never sends one of her brothers to wake her so that she can prepare the family for the hurricane. She wonders what all the men are up to this morning. Then Skeetah appears in the door, and Esch knows that something is wrong. She follows him out to the shed, where one of the puppies is not eating with the rest. Skeetah tries to move the puppy closer to China so that it can nurse, but China growls and bites at the puppy. Esch says that the mother must know that something is wrong, and Skeetah suspects that the puppy has picked up parvo. Skeetah decides to separate the puppy from the rest of the litter to protect the healthy ones, and he asks Esch if she will help him when the time comes. Esch agrees. Skeetah steals some of the hurricane provisions from the kitchen and packs them for the night’s trip into the woods to kill and bury the puppy.

Skeetah, Randall, and Esch enter the woods and find the makeshift barbecue pit that they made when they were younger. They set out supplies, and Skeetah decides that they need more food, so he shoots a squirrel with his BB gun. Randall refuses to clean the squirrel, so Skeetah does, but he accidentally nips the intestines. The smell forces Esch into the bushes to vomit. While the meat is cooking, Marquise, Big Henry, and Manny arrive. Esch comments that Skeetah never named the puppy, so he tells her to give it a name. She chooses Nella. Manny says that they should kill the puppy now to save it from suffering. Skeetah grabs the puppy’s head and twists, swiftly breaking its...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

“The Fourth Day: Worth Stealing”

There are fleas everywhere as Esch walks toward Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph’s house. Little is left of the porch to the house, and overall, the house is dilapidated. Mama had tried to keep the house a shrine, but the increasing needs of their own family forced her and Daddy to pilfer items from inside the house. Esch finds Skeetah there pulling up linoleum tiles from the kitchen floor. He says that he needs to build a floor for the puppies because the parvo must be in the dirt. They soon hear Daddy’s tractor approaching, so Skeetah throws the tiles out the window where they will not be seen. When Daddy enters, he makes Esch boost Skeetah up to the rafters to take down plywood to use against the upcoming storms.

Skeetah asks Esch to help him with an important task, and when she agrees, he tells her that they are going into the woods to the east where a small house and old barn belonging to a white family are located. Skeetah found the place one day when they were playing chase in the woods, and he knows that the family keeps cows and supplies in the barn. He is on a mission to steal cow wormer to help the puppies. Skeetah and Esch change into camouflaged clothes and jog out to the barn. The two watch the house for movement and determine that no one is home. Skeetah tells Esch to keep watch and to whistle if she sees a car or a person approaching. Then they see someone in a nearby cove of trees—Randall, Junior, and Big Henry have followed them. Randall gets Skeetah to tell him his plan, and only when Skeetah says that he plans to use some of the money from the sale of the puppies to put Randall through basketball camp does the elder brother submit. Randall also takes up a watch post, while Big Henry takes Junior back into the woods.

Skeetah breaks a window and climbs into the barn. Outside, Esch is consumed by an intense need to go to the bathroom, so she squats...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

“The Fifth Day: Salvage the Bones”

In the morning, Esch bursts into the bathroom, her need to pee intense. Skeetah stands shirtless at the sink, gently tracing wounds on his stomach. He tells Esch that he was cut on the window glass while hurrying from the barn. Skeetah picks up an old Ace bandage that he has cleaned and bleached and tries to wrap it around himself. Esch takes the bandage to help him. While she wraps him up, Esch notices that Skeetah smells like wind over the Gulf of Mexico, and this makes her think about times past when her father took them swimming there. They dug up oysters and watched the pelicans floating on the water. Once when Mama went along, she caught a shark, which she...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

"The Sixth Day: A Steady Hand"

Daddy is outside knocking down what is left of the chicken coop. Skeetah spent the night in the shed after he and Daddy fought last night, and Esch is sitting on the sofa waiting for Skeetah to come inside through the front door to avoid seeing Daddy in the back yard. While she waits, Esch sneaks into the bathroom to devour cans of Vienna sausages from the hurricane stockpile. Eventually she gets tired of waiting and goes out to the shed. China rests her head on her paws while the puppies suckle, and Skeetah says that he knows something is wrong with the dog because she is being so mild-tempered. Esch assures him that Manny gave him the right advice about the wormer and...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

“The Seventh Day: Game Dogs and Game Men”

All the kids except Skeetah get into Big Henry’s car to go to the hospital. Daddy sits in the front seat, his hand wrapped in a blood-soaked towel. When the nurse sees the stream of blood from Daddy’s hand, she asks him his name and whisks him away in a wheelchair. At three o’clock in the morning, Randall and Daddy come down the hall; Daddy’s eyes are glazed like they are when he is drunk. His hand is wrapped in gauze and tape. At home, Daddy sleeps like he has not slept since Mama died. Esch takes soup and crackers into his room; he nibbles the crackers while watching television. Daddy then asks Esch to play with the antenna, and soon they are able...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

“The Eighth Day: Make Them Know”

The next morning, Junior tries to get Esch out of bed but she rolls away from him, feeling the hurt of the day before. Still he pesters her—Skeetah has said that Junior cannot go to the dog-fight unless Esch takes him. Esch gets up and Junior tells her that Randall made Daddy’s breakfast earlier that morning. In Daddy’s room, a map of the hurricane is on the television screen and two cans of beer are on the nightstand next to the bed. Junior follows Esch and she tells him that they can go see the dog-fight. Outside, Skeetah is bathing China, who recognizes her master. Randall is outside too, arguing with Skeetah about his behavior during the game. Skeetah says...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

“The Ninth Day: Hurricane Eclipse”

Esch is woken by the sound of Daddy vomiting in the bathroom. He calls for Randall who is still in his bed. Skeetah is not in the room though. After the dog fight, Skeetah cleaned and treated China’s wounds and must have slept outside in the shed with her. In the bathroom, Daddy tells Randall that he is sick and needs to stay by the toilet, but Randall and Esch carry him back to bed and promise to put a garbage pail next to the bed. Randall searches for Daddy’s medicine and asks him if his hand hurts. Randall tells Daddy that he is not supposed to drink while on his pain medication and antibiotics, but Daddy shakes his head and says that beer is not really like...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

“The Tenth Day: In the Endless Eye”

Esch eats all of Skeetah’s eggs and bologna because he has stayed outside in the shed with China. Randall curses and throws a can of tomato paste across the room after he counts the meager food supplies that are stored for the family. After breakfast, Esch overhears Randall telling Daddy that they do not have enough food, and Daddy tells him that if they cannot cook during the storm, then they will have to eat the Ramen noodles dry. He adds that they will make do with what they have. He then asks for his wedding ring, and Esch retrieves it from her drawer. He goes back to his room because he is the only one who can stand being inside the boarded-up house;...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

“The Eleventh Day: Katrina”

Esch wonders where all the animals go when hurricanes occur. She used to think that all the animals ran away, but now she thinks that the small animals just hunker down in their homes to wait out the storms. The telephone always rings on the day before a hurricane to play a message from the state government encouraging evacuation and warning residents about the potential consequences of staying in the area during a hurricane. The hurricane becomes real when people realize that they could die during the storm. The worst hurricane that Esch remembers, Hurricane Elaine, a category 3, happened when she was eight years old. Randall and Daddy slept through the storm, but...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

“The Twelfth Day: Alive”

The family sits in the attic of Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph's house until the wind quiets and water recedes. Esch scoots past everyone to get to Skeetah who is sitting near a gap in the roof. He looks outside like he wants to jump. Esch touches him between his shoulders, and his skin is hot to the touch. He jerks but does not look at her. He says that he has failed China, but Esch reminds him that he did not fail his family. He starts to shake, and Esch tightly embraces him. Skeetah says that as soon as the water gets down to the middle of the tires on the truck outside, he is going to go out to search for China. But he cannot wait that long, and as soon as he sees the...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear