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Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward presents the reader with unexpected, conflicting emotions as the characters struggle in their environment but never think of attempting to change their circumstances—there are no opportunities for that. Traditionally, people are over-awed by talk of birth but Ward introduces the harsh reality of being born ("I can see her, chin to chest, straining to push Junior out, and Junior snagging on her insides...") and the consequences, for this family, will be devastating. The children will miss their mother because, after Daddy takes Mama to the hospital after Junior's birth, the children never see her again. The mystery and beauty of birth is replaced with the family's reality and, although Esch tries to emulate her mother and complete tasks according to what her mother taught her or would expect, she is needy and seeks love which renders its own consequences as Esch finds herself pregnant.
China has also given birth and Skeetah reveals his gentle side in caring for her. He even makes a kennel for the puppies but, when China rejects the runt, Skeetah knows what he must do. The family members are not aware of their contradictory approach. To them, the harshness of life is normal and must be dealt with matter-of-factly. Dog fighting, with all its cruel and viscous implications, is discussed as if it were a sport. The boys feel pride, especially Skeetah, who refers to China as a "boss." He has no problem later treating China harshly when he thinks that she needs to be taught a lesson and must remain chained up. The boys encourage their dogs to fight. Skeetah cannot be persuaded to keep China out of the fights because she is a new mother. He does, however, tenderly treat her wounds afterwards and stay with her. This is the reality of his world. He will even ensure there is food for his dog at the expense of food for the family.
There is a fierce loyalty present throughout the novel which the characters can only express through their own version of caring. Sometimes it is harsh and shocking; for example, when Junior takes one of the puppies, Esch hurts him purposefully. She is sorry that she has hurt him and promises to take him to the park but she would do the same thing again if she felt it necessary.
Remembering that Mama told the children to "look after each other" brings everything into focus for the reader as the storm approaches its worst and Ward continues to present the reader with this inconsistent scenario where violence and tenderness can endure simultaneously. In fact, for this family, it has become clear to the reader that it is only through the combining of such extremes that this family can even survive.
What do scenes of violence — Daddy's loss of his fingers, China's killing of her puppy, the dogfight between China and Kilo, the devastation of the hurricane — add to the novel? What can we learn from reading a novel so full of brutality?
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