Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward ****

This summer we went down to the Gulf for vacation.  Our first stop was Biloxi, Mississippi.  We went directly to the tourism center, which is housed in a beautiful antebellum mansion right on the beach.  It was a gorgeous house & Puppy was especially impressed with the porches on both the first & second floors that had some nice ceiling fans.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that this building had only just opened last year.  The original house, which had stood there for many years, was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  Biloxi had painstakingly rebuilt it to look exactly like it had before.

As we drove along the main drag we noticed several blank spaces in between other homes & businesses.  It was then that the destruction that Katrina had unleashed on the gulf coast really hit home for me.  Being from the middle of the US & not having much experience of being around the ocean I never really could wrap my head around the images I saw of the post-Katrina apocalypse.  Being there made it much more real.

Salvage the Bones is about the days leading up to Katrina & it's immediate aftermath.  It's the story of Esch, a 14 year old girl living in poverty in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.  Her mother died 6 years ago giving birth to her little brother.  She lives with her drunken father & her 3 brothers:  Randall, the oldest who takes care of everyone; Skeetah, who loves his pit bull China more than most people; & Junior, who's lived his life not knowing his mother & being raised by Esch & Randall.

The family lives in extreme poverty on a patch of land called The Pit just outside of town.  Never is there any reference in the book to there being a female that Esch calls friend.  It's just her & her brothers & their friends--that's the whole circle of her world.  She's in love with Randall's best friend, Manny, who uses her for her body & then never acknowledges her otherwise.  She discovers that she's pregnant just as Skeetah's dog China gives birth to her first litter of puppies, & from that moment on her story, China's story, & the story of Medea (she is reading Bulfinch's Mythology for school) all become intertwined as the book unfolds.

I'd never heard about this book before, even though it won the National Book Award a few years back.  I wonder if maybe it's because of the references to & descriptions of dog fighting, which has come more into the spotlight since Michael Vick was arrested for it.  It's such a horrible sport, but the way Ward describes the bizarre way in which these boys love their dogs, yet fight them so brutally, is mesmerizing.
Love & death.  The two eternal mysteries, told in a compelling & touching way by Jesmyn Ward.  Katrina the destroyer--it's the stuff of mythology.

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