Salvage the Bones

by Jesmyn Ward
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What is the presence of Mama in Jesmyn Ward's novel Salvage the Bones? How does Mama live on in her children's memory, even though she has been dead for seven years?

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In Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, Mama lives on her children’s memories in virtually every observation or activity the story’s 15-year-old protagonist, Esch, and her three brothers experience.  Right from the start, Mama’s presence is felt in Esch’s description of the “black tennis shoes Mama bought because they hide dirt and hold up until they’re beaten soft,” and in drawing a somewhat uncomfortable parallel between her brother Skeetah’s pit bull and their deceased mother’s giving birth to Junior, the youngest of the three brothers.  Describing the dog, China’s, process of labor, Esch recalls her mother’s pregnancy:

“What China [the pit bull] is doing is nothing like what Mama did when she had my youngest brother, Junior.  Mama gave birth in the house she bore all of us in, here in the gap in the woods her father cleared and built on that we now call the Pit.”

The discussion of China’s difficulties delivering her litter of puppies also provides Ward an opening to reveal at the outset of her novel why Mama isn’t around anymore.  Commenting on the dog’s difficulties, Esch offers, “’Maybe you need to help her push,’ I say.  Sometime I think that is what killed Mama’.”  When Esch focuses momentarily on the style in which she wears her hair, it is again an occasion to reference her late-mother’s influence on her life:

“I pulled my hair back in a ponytail. . .Mama used to let me run around with it down, said it was some throwback trait, and since I got it, I might as well enjoy it.”

The brothers, also, habitually reference their mother when confronted with a dilemma, as when the children are discussing the dying puppy Esch has named Nella.  The puppy is dying and the boys are contemplating options for a mercy killing, prompting Skeetah to ask rhetorically, “You remember how Mama used to kill the chickens?”  Throughout Salvage the Bones, the presence of Mama is continuously felt by the family she left behind.  With an alcoholic father of little to no repute, the children have been forced to become self-sufficient, relying only on each other as the fateful day with the approaching hurricane brings increasing agitation.  Memories of their mother is their strongest common bond, and she serves as a reference point and model during the 12 days depicted.  For the pregnant teenage Esch, memories of motherhood serve a vital function.

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