How would you describe the relationship between Esch and China in Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones? Is China viewed as a role model for Esch, and how does this influence Esch's state of mind from the beginning to the end of the story?
The key, one could logically suggest, to understanding the relationship between the pregnant pit-bull and the pregnant teenager in Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones could lie in the author’s own personal history. A daughter of the Deep South, African American, survivor of Hurricane Katrina, all of which informs her novel. Ordinarily, comparing a pregnant dog with a pregnant teenager could be considered to be in exceedingly poor taste, but Ward has an important point to make. Esch, her main protagonist, is a young, African American teenager, the only daughter among four children, her mother dead and her father an abusive drunk. It’s a bleak picture, and the fact that Ward repeatedly references the figure from Greek mythology Medea bodes ill for her characters. Medea, of course, killed her brother and was spurned by her husband, Jason, with whom she birthed two children, who left her for the daughter of the king of Corinth. Madea retaliates by slaying their children. That both China and Esch are pregnant provides Ward the literary tool she needs to draw a strong relationship between canine and economically destitute black girl whose only solace seems to come from the casual sex that has resulted in her pregnancy. China, however, becomes something of a model for Esch, as the dog goes about her business of delivering her litter of puppies, one of whom is born a runt after Esch’s family all think the last puppy had already arrived. This delinquent puppy is literally dropped into the refuse of China’s afterbirth and can serve as a metaphor for Esch’s own dismal existence. In the chapter title The Sixth Day: A Steady Hand,China violently rejects the puppy and Esch’s father has his fingers ripped off in a tractor accident. Blood is everwhere. The pregnant teenager observes the scene and Ward writes of her protagonist, “China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?” [Italics in original]
Hurricane Katrina, of course, serves as a character in its own right, a looming giant approaching with the expectation of destroying everything in its path. Manny, the boy who has impregnated Esch but now spurns her attentions serves as another antagonist in Ward’s novel, and again the author employs the metaphor of Medea in connecting the lives of China and Esch:
“I know that whatever Manny is saying is showing the meanness in him, that he is Jason betraying Medea and asking for the hand of the daughter of the king of Corinth in marriage after Medea has killed her brother for him, betrayed her father. Manny’s mouth moves and I read She ain’t shit, ain’t got no heart. He looks at China when he murmurs, but it feels like he looks at me.”
Esch’s is a lonely existence, and she survives the only way she knows how. China is a beloved pet of her brother Skeetah, despite his use of the pit bull for dog-fighting, a barbaric activity that is part of the local culture from which Ward sprang. The relationships among Esch, China, and the mythological figure of Medea was perhaps articulated best by the author herself in a 2011 interview:
“Medea is in China most directly. China is brutal and magical and loyal. Madea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch, too, because Esch understands her vulnerability, Medea’s tender heart, and responds to it.” [http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/08/30/jesmyn-ward-on-salvage-the-bones/]
In that same interview, Ward expands on the influences she drew from her own life for her characters and story:
“My father’s favorite and sole pit bull was so dear to us that sometimes it was my babysitter; I remember sitting in our dirt driveway as a six-year-old crying because I was alone while that dog licked me. But then I also remember the dog fighting, and being incredible fierce. After my brother died, his pit bull was a living link to him.”
China serves this role in Salvage the Bones. She is a survivor who represents the inner strength needed to overcome adversity – and there are few circumstances more adverse than Hurricane Katrina – while representing compassion. She provides Esch the only potential role model the young girl has, alone in a house full of men, teenaged boys sniffing around with lascivious intent, dependent upon only herself to survive.