Salvage the Bones: A Novel
By Jesmyn Ward
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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A pregnant teenager weathers several kinds of storms in Salvage the Bones, a National Book Award–winning novel that takes place before and during the assault by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. Esch Batiste has just finished tenth grade in an impoverished Southern Mississippi town, where she lived with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who gives birth to a litter in the first pages. The Batistes were struggling before the storm, and all of them will face new and frightening tests in a story that asks: What does it mean to be a mother in the face of disaster?
10 Discussion Questions for Salvage the Bones:
1. The story in Salvage the Bones is told by Esch Batiste, who has just finished tenth grade. Was Esch’s teenaged voice believable? Why or why not?
2. What is the theme of Salvage the Bones or the main thing Ward is trying to say in the novel?
3. Other books about Hurricane Katrina have dealt with broad social or political issues, such as the treatment of evacuees by federal agencies. Ward focuses on one family, the Batistes: Esch and her father, Claude, and her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior. How would you describe the Batistes? How does Hurricane Katrina change the family? What do we learn from its story?
4. Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal said that the bond between Esch’s brother Skeetah and his dog, China, is “the strongest and most affecting in the book.” Do you agree? Why does Skeetah allows China allow to enter the dog fight described in the chapter called “The Eighth Day” if he loves her so much? [pages 153–176]
5. What race did you assume Manny (the father of Esch’s baby) to be? Many critics seemed to assume that he was black. But Ward says that Manny had a “red sunburn” [page 16]. Black skin can burn, but it doesn’t turn red in the same way that white skin does. Would it make a difference if a black teenager in the Deep South had been impregnated by a white or Latino boy?
6. How would you describe Ward’s writing style? How well did it suit the subject of her book? [Background: Some critics have called that style “poetic.” Ward seemed to agree when she told the Paris Review: “I’m a failed poet. Reading poetry helps me to see the world differently, and I try to infuse my prose with figurative language, which goes against the trend in fiction.” But Salvage the Bones also has journalistic aspects – for example, when Ward describes the onslaught of Katrina by quoting weather reports.]
7. Salvage the Bones links Esch’s story to that of Medea, who murdered her children to avenge her betrayal by her husband, and to other figures from Greek mythology. How effective was this literary technique? Were you persuaded, for example, by Esch’s comment that she slept with boys “because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne”? [p. 16]
8. Ward explained the Medea analogies by saying in a Paris Review interview: “Medea is in China most directly. China is brutal and magical and loyal. Medea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch, too, because Esch understands her vulnerability, Medea’s tender heart, and responds to it.” Can you give examples of how China is “brutal” as Medea and Esch is “tender”?
9. Have you lived through a hurricane or other natural disaster? If so, how did you react to the portrayal of Hurricane Katrina? What seemed most and least believable?
10. What does the title Salvage the Bones mean? Esch suggests more than one answer when she says of Katrina, “She left us to salvage.” [page 255] What is being “salvaged”?
1. Have you read other books about how Hurricane Katrina affected residents of the Gulf Coast, such as Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun? If so, how did they compare to Salvage the Bones? Which book showed the effects of the devastation best?
2. Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. Have you read other recent winners of that prize, such as Let the Great World Spin or Lord of Misrule (or earlier ones such as Cold Mountain, The Color Purple or Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories)? If so, how does Salvage the Bones compare to them? Was it one of the stronger or weaker winners?
3. Emma Donoghue’s bestselling Room has many things in common with Salvage the Bones – a young narrator, a disastrous event, a focus on motherhood, and more. If you’ve read it, which novel worked better? Why?
You may also want to read: A review of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which talks about the risks of adding many literary references to a novel. It doesn’t mention the Medea analogies in Salvage the Bones but explains how such techniques can backfire.
Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury, 261 pp., $24. Published: August 2011. Paperback due out March 2012.
A review of Salvage the Bones appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 15, 2012, in the post directly after this one.
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Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter, where she writes about books and reading groups, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.