The 2011 National Book Award Winner for Fiction (U.S.), Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward tells the story of the Batiste family, a poor, Black family living in a rural community near the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A first-person narrative told from the point of view of the Batiste family’s only female member, the teenager Esch, the story takes place in the 10 days preceding Hurricane Katrina, the day of the storm and the day after.
The book is largely character driven, and throughout most of the story the hurricane preparations are secondary. Esch is a smart, strong-willed character in her late teens, who especially likes reading and is currently infatuated with the Greek mythology story of Jason and Medea. Her mother died following the birth of her youngest brother, and she has clearly become the matriarch of the Batiste family. Early into the story she also learns that she is pregnant.
The characters are well-written, and for me, they are what made the book a great read. Esch lives with her brothers, each who have interesting character traits — an older brother trying to get into college on a basketball college, a younger brother who has a borderline-obsessive relationship with the family’s dog and her newly born puppies, and the curious and active youngest brother. They live with their alcoholic father, and despite his short-comings, as the novel progresses you can clearly see his love and concern for his children. There are also a handful of other secondary characters living in Esch’s community of Bois Sauvage. Through narrating their daily lives, the author presents issues of poverty, race, and the familial bonds that tie humans together.
For me, the most difficult chapter for me to get through was the day the actual hurricane hit. Ward describes the storm in great detail, and the steps the Batiste family went through to try to survive. According to the author’s Wikipedia page, she herself is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, and I wondered how much of this book was autobiographical.
I would classify Salvage the Bones in the same realm as To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that can be enjoyed by both teens and adults for its unique, likeable characters, and appreciated for its subtle commentary on the human condition.