"SALVAGE THE BONES." By Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury. $24.
If it had not caught the attention of a handful of important readers, Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones" would most likely have quietly faded into obscurity; many worthy books do. Now, however, this novel about a poor Mississippi family in the weeks leading up to 2005's Hurricane Katrina has a prominent place in bookstores and boasts the gold medallion that comes with winning the 2011 National Book Award.
Book awards are marvelously idiosyncratic. While major film and music awards are based on the votes of a large group -- meaning there is a general consensus or popularity -- book awards are frequently selected by just a few people. In the case of the National Book Awards, five judges read 315 fiction submissions in a small window of time and choose their favorite. The result, this year, was that an under-the-radar second novel rose to the top of the pack.
"Salvage the Bones" is an intense book, with powerful, direct prose that dips into poetic metaphor. It's told by a teenage girl, Esch, whose late-summer thoughts turn to Greek myths and her neglectful lover, Manny. "I imagine this is the way Medea felt about Jason when she fell in love," she thinks. "That she looked at him and felt a fire eating up through her rib cage, turning her blood to boil, evaporating hotly out of every inch of her skin. I feel it so strongly that I cannot imagine how Manny does not feel it, too."
Although Esch has been sexually active since the age of 12, Manny, a friend of her brother's, is the first man she's fallen for. Her desire for a relationship with him is more aspirational than realistic -- their couplings are heated but passionless, and he lives with a girlfriend -- but hopes, however tenuous, are the lifeline for Esch and her brothers.
The siblings have largely raised themselves since their mother died after giving birth to Junior, the youngest. After her death, their father took up a diminishing cycle of odd jobs, alcohol and anger. They live on several rural acres that belonged to their mother's family, which once profited by using part of it as an ad-hoc dump. Broken appliances and partly working vehicles dot the yard between their house and the decaying home where their grandparents lived; chickens wander, no longer confined to an abandoned chicken coop. Where the woods are cleared, there is red dust.
Randall, the eldest, practices basketball with hopes that it might bring him to the attention of a scout and college. Esch longs for Manny. Skeetah, a year younger than Esch, thinks he'll be able to sell the puppies from his cherished fighting dog, China.
This would probably be the right place to mention that if you have a problem with dogfights, this might not be the book for you. Or girls having casual sex with their older brothers' friends at age 12, for that matter. Yet the story is told with such immediacy and openness that it may keep judgments at bay. We are immersed in Esch's world, a world in which birth and death nestle close, where there is little safety except that which the siblings create for each other.
That close-knit familial relationship is vivid and compelling, drawn with complexities and detail. Randall and Esch have served as Junior's default parents, raising him from a baby when they themselves were only children. Esch admires Skeetah but watches his devotion to China with unarticulated envy; the love he has for the dog is more than Manny has for her. She is resentful of the attention he pays to China; yet as oblivious as he is, Skeetah is the only one in her family who sees that Esch is pregnant.
Esch struggles with her secret pregnancy; and there are so few resources available to her family -- a sick animal can be healed only by stealing medicine -- that she doesn't think about choices. She thinks about her changing body, the physicality of the gestating life, and dreams that it might make Manny warm to her.
While Hurricane Katrina brews on the horizon of this book, it doesn't appear in these pages until halfway through and lands much later. First there are battles to be fought: a key basketball game for Randall, a threatening challenge for China. The dog is beautiful, well-trained by Skeetah and terribly vicious. There is much uncertainty about whether she can be both a mother and a fighter, and this too applies to Esch. There are parallels here, not too heavy, of the tensions some women carry of blood and strength, of nurturing and danger. Again and again, Esch's thoughts return to the Medea myth. She's growing into her own kind of power, but she's not sure what it is, or should be.
Ward, 34, accepted the National Book Award saying that she wanted to write about poor, black rural Southerners in such a way that the greater culture would see their stories -- "our stories," she said -- as universal. In this novel of dogfighting, unwanted pregnancy and poverty, she has done just that. It's fortunate that this particular panel of judges was listening.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Los Angeles Times