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...
(The entire section is 1,937 words.)