Themes

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Last Updated on March 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847

In Salvage the Bones, Ward intertwines Esch’s story with that of three other mothers: Mama, her own mother, China, her brother’s pitbull, and Medea, the mythological figure she reads about for school. As a result, the book reads as a close examination of motherhood, and the extent to which it yields female empowerment. Yet there is another woman who looms large in the novel: Hurricane Katrina. Forces of nature and human response to crises are also prominent motifs woven throughout the novel.

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Female Empowerment and Motherhood

In the opening sequence of the novel, China is in labor. This causes Esch to recall her mother’s death, which occurred as a result of childbirth. Esch’s mother refused to go to the hospital until after her difficult labor was over; China delivers five healthy puppies and one that is stillborn. The contrast between these two characters suggests that motherhood, or labor, is perilous and dangerous, though it carries the miraculous possibility of new life.

Over the course of the novel, Esch acts as her younger brother’s primary caregiver. Though her older brothers take on a paternal role, Esch has maternal skills that she may not recognize.

When Esch considers her feelings for Manny, she often does so by thinking about the myth of Medea. The comparison between Medea and Esch emphasizes the intensity of Esch’s feelings, including her initial passion for him and her rage when he rejects her.

Esch also uses Medea as a medium through which to consider her own strength. In mythology, Medea’s feminity is both a strength and a weakness. Being a woman kindles her relationship with Jason, but it also leaves her powerless when he chooses to remarry. Being a woman empowers her to create life, and also empowers her to infamously reject the role of mother and commit murder in revenge. As a character, Medea is known for rejecting the patriarchal society she lived in and for inspiring both awe and fear in those around her.

In their first few days of life, one of the puppies falls ill, and Skeetah decides to kill it to prevent infection from spreading to the others. Later, China attacks one of the puppies as it approaches her to suckle. While thinking about the harm parents can inflict on their children, Esch also considers what her family’s experience has been like since her mother’s death: they have become increasingly impoverished, and their father has become increasingly removed from their lives. These experiences cause Esch to question the quality of life her child might have, with or without her presence.

During the fight between China and Kilo, Kilo attacks and damages one of China’s teats. China is so enraged by this that she defeats Kilo in their next round. This scene reveals the extent to which motherhood can be both a strength and a weakness.

Over the course of the novel, Esch’s isolation as the only female in her family is juxtaposed with tender memories of her mother. Esch uses lessons from her mother—like how to gather eggs from the chickens in the junkyard—to survive her daily life and the hurricane. Her mixed feelings toward Mama, such as love, appreciation, grief, and abandonment, cause her to question the feelings she will have for her unborn child.

As the hurricane approaches, it is increasingly characterized. It is given a name, Katrina, and a female pronoun, “her.” As the storm arrives, Esch gives Katrina full personal agency, describing Katrina’s anger and Katrina’s hands pushing her into the water. As an embodiment of Mother Nature, Katrina is another representation of the awesome and fearsome power of motherhood.

Forces of Nature and Human Response to Crises

Hurricane Katrina is an environmental catastrophe for Esch and her family, and for the greater Gulf Coast. Though each of the men in her family responds to the crisis differently, Esch relies on a combination of her personal strength and acceptance of the situation to survive the ordeal.

Daddy’s primary preoccupation is preparing for the seasonal hurricanes that impact the southeastern United States yearly. This acts as both foreshadowing and dramatic irony in the text. It also conveys that natural disasters, paradoxically, can be both predictable and chaotic at once.

Though Daddy tries to prepare the house for the hurricane, his drinking and inattention limit his ability to prevent and/or respond to the issues in his own family: Esch’s sexuality and pregnancy, Skeetah’s dog fighting and thievery, and Randall’s ejection from a basketball game that could have given him more opportunities in life. Daddy is so overtaken by his fear of the storm that he loses sight of his children’s issues and needs.

When Big Henry, Skeetah, and Esch drive by a car crash, Big Henry wants to stop and help. Skeetah is feeling anxious and wants to get home to take care of his puppies. As Skeetah’s interests in his puppies is predominantly financial, the two characters embody alternate responses to the emergency: altruism and self-interest.

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