Last Updated on June 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1937
Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was published in 2011 to great critical acclaim, winning the 2011 National Book Award and being celebrated in reviews by the LA Times, The Washington Post, and the New York Times Sunday Book Review. At the novel’s start, Esch Batiste, a working-class, fifteen-year-old girl, lives in coastal Mississippi in the days before Hurricane Katrina and discovers that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, her older brothers are preoccupied with basketball and dog fighting, her younger brother needs to be raised, and her father is often absent. Through a gritty and touching portrayal of rural life in the shadow of an environmental catastrophe, Esch’s journey becomes epic as she envisions herself as a modern Medea: a woman in possession of passion and rage, who can empower herself as she navigates a fickle world full of unreliable men and forces of nature beyond her control.
Salvage the Bones opens as China the pit bull goes into labor. Esch, the protagonist and narrator, reflects on how she, Randall, and Skeetah had been easy births for their mother. However, her mother died after having Junior, the youngest son of the family. Esch watches China suffer in labor while her sixteen-year-old brother, Skeetah, cares for China.
Outside, Daddy gets the house ready for a hurricane, as he can feel a storm coming. The house is in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and was inherited from Esch’s mother’s parents. Meanwhile, Manny arrives at the house—he is nineteen, two years older than Randall—and the two play basketball together with a few other friends from the neighborhood, Big Henry and Marquise. Esch wants Manny to see her. She takes a broken bottle out to the “Pit,” the area in the backyard of her family’s property with a shallow cliff and a pond. Next to the Pit is where her family burns all their trash. At the Pit, Manny meets Esch, and they have sex. Esch believes she is truly in love with Manny, unlike the other boys she has been with.
The morning after China’s puppies are born, Esch reflects on her life and admits that the only things that have ever come easy to her are sex and swimming. She had sex for the first time when she was twelve with Skeetah’s friend Marquise, and she has been sexually active ever since. She learned how to swim when she was six after her father threw her into the Pit. Rather than sinking or drowning, she picked up swimming easily.
Skeetah asks Esch to help him with an important task, and she agrees. He explains that they are going into the woods to the east, where a small house and old barn belonging to a white family are located. He is on a mission to steal cow wormer to help the puppies. Esch and Skeetah run into Randall, Junior, and Big Henry while out, to Skeetah’s dismay. Junior wants to be the one to steal the cow wormer as he runs the fastest. After some arguing about who should go, Skeetah goes to the barn, and the rest stay back in the woods as lookouts. The owners arrive with their dog while Skeetah is inside the barn. Esch, Skeetah, and the others flee as the owner’s dog chases them. Esch knows that she should be running faster, but her pregnancy makes it difficult. They make it home, and China immediately attacks the white family’s dog. Esch tells Skeetah to control China before she kills the other dog. Skeetah calms China and lets the other dog limp away, defeated. He then gleams in triumph—the cow wormer is in his pocket.
Skeetah brings China out of the shed because he thinks she needs time to herself away from the puppies. Manny is there, and Skeetah tells him that he plans to take China to the upcoming dogfights so no one forgets that she is a “boss” dog. Manny says that his cousin Rico will bring his dog Kilo, the sire of China’s puppies, to fight. Esch looks at Manny hoping that he will return her gaze, but he never looks at her. Manny says China is not as boss as she used to be, but Skeetah claims that since she is now a mother, she is as tough as she will ever be. Esch considers abortion, but realizes she has few options: her father won’t help her, she has little money, and she can’t physically hurt herself to cause a miscarriage. Daddy then comes home drunk and angry, is rough with Skeetah, and claims that his children are ungrateful.
In the shed, a puppy gets near China’s teat, so she grabs it by the neck and whips it through the air. She flings it into the tin wall of the shed, killing it. Meanwhile, the coming storm is now called “Katrina.” Daddy continues to prepare by tearing down the chicken coop and using the extra wood to barricade the house further. Daddy asks Randall to drive the tractor to knock down the rest of the coop. When chicken wire gets stuck in the grill of the tractor, Daddy tells Randall to stop, and then he tries to fix it. Randall mishears Daddy and begins driving the tractor forward while Daddy’s hands are still in the tractor’s grill. Daddy pulls his hand from the tractor and blood is everywhere: three of his fingers have been sheared away. Randall takes Daddy to the emergency room.
Esch and her brothers go to the gymnasium at St. Catherine’s Elementary School because Randall has a basketball game. He hopes to win a scholarship to a competitive basketball camp by winning this game. Esch runs to the bathroom after seeing Manny and cries. Manny follows her and tries to have sex with her, but she forces him to look at her. He notices her pregnancy and pushes her away before leaving. Esch sits in the stall, crying, until her brother Junior checks in on her. They return to the basketball game. Manny and Rico are sitting nearby in the bleachers. Skeetah notices Esch’s distress because of Manny and curses him. Rico gets up to talk to Skeetah about China’s puppies. Rico wants to stake his claim, but Skeetah tells him that he has no right to any of the puppies. Manny gets up to intervene, but Skeetah is angry and punches Rico. The brawl spills onto the gym floor, and the coach blows his whistle and tells Randall to leave with his “people.”
At the dog fight that evening, China is so fast that she meets Kilo before he can even get to the middle of the clearing. The fight is fierce, and Kilo rips off one of China’s nipples. Afterward, China is enraged, and when Kilo tries to bite her teat again, she snaps her jaws around his neck. Kilo screams loudly, ending the fight, with China as the winner.
Daddy mixes his pain pills with alcohol and makes himself sick. Since he is unable to prepare the house for the hurricane, he is worried. Randall tells Daddy that he and the others will take care of the house. Esch and her brothers spend the next day preparing for Hurricane Katrina, which has now become a Category 3 storm. As they return from the store, Randall, Esch, and Junior meet Manny. Randall tells Manny that Skeetah has accused Manny of poisoning China and “dogging,” or sleeping with, Esch. Manny denies it and says that he considers them family. Randall disagrees. Manny walks away, but Esch calls out to him and tells him that she is pregnant. Manny shakes his head and says that the baby is not his. Esch attacks Manny. She screams at him, saying that she had loved him. As she attacks Manny, Esch compares herself to the character Medea, who was betrayed by her lover, Jason. Manny pushes Esch away and calls her crazy. He leaves without accepting that Esch’s child is his and accuses her of sleeping with many men. She then tells him that once the child is born, the truth will be obvious.
The storm arrives, and Esch and her family barricade themselves in the living room. Water starts rising up from the floor. The pit has overflowed with water, and the family moves upstairs to avoid the flooding. They end up in the attic, but the water still rises. Randall and Daddy talk about how a family had drowned in their attic during a storm, and Skeetah becomes intent on getting out of the attic. He finds a chainsaw and cuts a hole in the roof, and the whole family climbs out. They try to cross to another, safer-looking house over tree branches. Skeetah wants Esch to go with him first, and Daddy thinks it’s because Esch has the puppies with her. Skeetah denies this, and he tells Daddy that Esch is pregnant. Out of shock and anger, Daddy pushes Esch, making her lose her balance on the tree branch she is on. Daddy immediately regrets it as Esch falls into the water and almost drowns. Esch loses the puppies while trying to swim, and Skeetah is forced to release China to save Esch. Eventually, they make it to the attic of the other, safer house.
When the storm recedes, the family sits quietly in the attic. Skeetah is upset that he lost China and the puppies. Esch tries to comfort him by reminding him that he helped save her and the family. After the storm is over, Skeetah leaves to find China. Randall decides the family needs to find a safer place and leads the family through the wreckage of the storm to Big Henry’s house. While walking to Big Henry’s house, Randall, Esch, and Junior notice Manny, who waves at them. Randall asks if Manny is the father, and Esch confirms it. Randall angrily threatens to beat up Manny. Esch tells him that she already fought Manny, and that it’s okay. The three walk together into Big Henry’s home, and Esch finds comfort in her brothers’ newfound protectiveness.
Inside the house, Daddy speaks with Esch. He apologizes for pushing her into the water and tells her that he wants her to be healthy so that “nothing will go wrong.” Esch thinks to herself that she will name her baby Rose, after her mother. If the baby is a boy, she will name him Jason, after her brother Skeetah. Big Henry comes in and asks if Esch, Randall, and Junior want to take a drive to see the town, find supplies, and find Skeetah, who is still out looking for China. They leave together. The group explores the town, which is completely ravaged. The school is demolished, and people are homeless and wandering about. While Randall and Junior are looking through the wreckage of the liquor store to find a bottle for Daddy, Big Henry sits by Esch. He says he heard what she and her father were talking about. He asks her if her child has a father, and she says no. Big Henry then reassures her, and tells her that the child will have him, and many other daddies to care for it.
The group finds Skeetah, who is waiting by the Pit for China. They try and convince Skeetah to come to Big Henry’s house, but he refuses to come until he finds his dog. The novel ends with the family and Big Henry waiting and hoping with Skeetah.