A pregnant teenager faces several kinds of storms, including Hurricane Katrina
Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. 259 pp., $24.
By Janice Harayda
Jesmyn Ward writes in Salvage the Bones at a 10-year-old reading level – that of a student who is just starting the fifth grade – according to well-established measures of comprehension. That fact in itself isn’t a problem. Some of the most popular classics of American literature have the same reading level, including The Grapes of Wrath and The Old Man and the Sea. So do at least two other recipients of the National Book Award for fiction, which Salvage the Bones won in 2011: Tree of Smoke and Let the Great World Spin. To Kill a Mockingbird has a reading level of only a half grade higher.
But Salvage the Bones differs from most adult novels with relatively low reading levels in an important way. It also has a young narrator – a pregnant teenager named Esch who lives with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who is giving birth to a litter as the novel opens. The Batistes live in “the black heart of Bois Sauvage,” a rundown town set apart from white neighborhoods near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, which Hurricane Katrina will destroy over the 12 days that give the novel its time frame. The family becomes caught up in a revenge tragedy in which Mother Nature punishes her children with a fury as unreasonable as that of Medea, whose story Esch has been reading in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology during the summer after tenth grade. Their tale tells us that motherhood is rational and irrational, tender and savage, a theme developed through the actions of Esch, China and Katrina.
It’s a task of alpine difficulty to hitch such a metaphorical load to a young narrator, almost a literary suicide mission. Even Harper Lee didn’t try it but told To Kill a Mockingbird from the point of view of an adult looking back on her childhood. Novelists who hope to create believable young narrators must invest those characters with the powers of observation needed to describe what they see and the wisdom to deal with it. That fact requires authors to become, in effect, faux-naïfs, writing as though they didn’t know much of what they do. The challenge is all the greater when an author intentionally or unintentionally limits the vocabulary, sentence structure and other elements that determine a reading level.
Ward brings large advantages to her work: intelligence, a respect for language, and first-hand knowledge of Katrina, gained while she was living in Mississippi. She knows how you kill a chicken by twisting its neck, how much meat you’ll have after you skin a squirrel (an amount “as thick as two pork chops laid together”), and how boys talk at backwoods dogfights, one of which gets 23 pages in her novel. She knows that if you’re poor, you prepare for a hurricane by covering windows with a wooden patchwork that leaves bits of glass exposed, not the custom-fitted boards of the well-off.
Salvage the Bones nonetheless has a hole at its center: Ward’s inability to create a narrator who sounds like a tenth-grader instead of an adult impersonating one. Esch says she slept with boys because they wanted sex, not because she did: “I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne.” Those words ring false not just because they are overwrought and imprecise but because they clash with others in the book. Esch says she started sleeping with boys at the age of 12, or in about the seventh grade. She read about the Greeks in Hamilton’s Mythology after the tenth grade. So she was having sex for three years before she knew of Psyche and Eurydice and Daphne. And are we to believe that wanted to feel like Eurydice stepping on a poisonous snake and spending the rest of her life in darkness after her beloved failed to rescue her? Here as elsewhere, the references to mythology hang on the tale like Spanish moss on a live oak. They may look pretty, but they grow on the story, not from within it.
Ward works hard to transcend the limits of telling the Batistes’ story in a young voice and at 10-year-old reading level. She weighs down her tale with similes and metaphors in duplicate or triplicate and lets you know exactly how you are supposed to feel about every character at nearly every moment. Esch says of Katrina, in one of many allusions to Medea, “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes.” That’s a metaphor and three similes in one sentence. Those figures of speech, at least, make sense. Esch says that cooked meat had “turned as brown and small with as many hard edges as a jewel” when the novel offers no evidence that she has seen a jewel. And Ward’s promiscuous us of color shows the limits of chromatic writing. Esch says that Manny, the father of her baby, had a face “marked with red sunburn.” Can’t we assume that sunburn is red? Apparently not. (Ward’s “red suburn” may be a clumsy attempt to signal that Manny is Latino or white given that black skin shows sunburn differently than white skin does.) Salvage the Bones has much, much more of this kind of writing.
All of this might have more of a payoff if the novel had larger ideas at its core. But Ward instead gives us belabored parallels to the Medea myth and bumper-sticker sentiments. “Bodies tell stories.” “Everything deserve to live.” “Everything need a chance.” Who could disagree with such lines? All the florid metaphors that surround them can’t elevate them. Leon Edel once said that Henry James, in his letters, could “disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.” Something similar occurs in Salvage the Bones. Journalists have called Hurricane Katrina “the mother of all storms,” and you may wonder whether Ward improves on it with her ponderous reminder: “Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”
Best line: “Manny could dribble on rocks.”
Worst line: “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”
About the reading level of this book: The 10-year-old or fifth-grade reading level of this book comes from Perma-Bound, which sells books to school libraries. Other reading-level assessment tools confirmed it and ranked some passages in the novel at a level as low as third grade or age 8.
Furthermore: Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction and a 2012 Alex Award for “books for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.