Thursday, October 20, 2011

Katrina lacks power in Salvage the Bones

Book 110: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, a story of a poor black family in Mississippi, builds toward two climatic moments -- a dog fight and a hurricane.

The story is able to support one of those moments, while the other slips away along with the novel's promise. 

Unfortunately, it's the dog fight that emerges as the most powerful and telling moment of this ambitious novel.  It's the narrative high point of the novel and all that follows, including the impact of Hurricane Katrina is anticlimactic. 

Katrina arrives late and leaves quickly. The family's escape from rising flood waters reads like a cheap adventure novel and the family responds to the wake of Katrina'ss devastation as if it were the newest ride at a Disney theme park. 

Salvage the Bones is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch, the only girl in this family of five. Mom died years earlier give birth to the youngest child, Junior.  Dad is a distant figure, earning the occasional buck on a rare odd job. Most of the money he makes is spent on alcohol.

Esch has two older brothers. Randall's trying to find a way out of poverty via basketball. Skeetah is absorbed with his pit bull, China, who whelps a litter of pups as the novel opens.  Those pups represent the promise of a huge payday for Skeetah -- if they can survive all the forces bent on their destruction.

Skeetah and China form the most compelling story in the novel. The hurricane looms in the background, building in power over the Gulf of Mexico.  The father attempts to prepare for its arrival, boarding up the windows of their home, hoarding water, stashing food, but the four children give it little thought.

Esch is concerned -- rightly -- with her newly discovered pregnancy. Randall with a bad knee and paying for basketball camp. Skeetah with China's poor response to medication and an effort to poach one of the pups.

The children's effort to survive from day to day invests the novel with dignity and power that the storm leaches away.  One element that never rings true is Esch's focus on the story of Jason and Medea. She's reading, we're told, a book on mythology and see parallels with Medea in her own life.

It's difficult to ever accept this line of thought by Esch. What 15-year-old, black or white, rich or poor, is absorbed with ancient Greek myth? Not many.

Esch's preoccupation with mythology ultimately emerges as an authorial device. Through Esch, Ward characterizes Katrina "as the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone . . . "

It feels false.  Overwriting and overreaching by an author rather than a characterization that rings true. 

Salvage the Bones might have succeeded with only one story, either the dog or the hurricane. Pick one and tell it. But the two stories throw the narrative off balance with the result that neither quite works.

1 comment:

  1. I'm hoping to read this one soon in conjunction with my National Book Award reading, so I'm sorry to hear it fell so flat with you. I'm still intrigued about the story and setting.