Salvage the Bones
by Jesmyn Ward
Esch’s daddy knows that a hurricane is coming and that it’s going to be a big one, but on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where hurricanes blow through every year, it’s hard for his family to get excited about this one. They don’t know it will be a category 5 storm named Katrina. With their Mama dead for seven years, fourteen-year-old Esch and her two older brothers, Randall and Skeetah, have to watch over their youngest brother, Junior, while their largely absent father drinks and mourns. Randall has his eye on a basketball scholarship as a one-way ticket out of town, and Skeetah is busy helping his pit bull, China, give birth to her first litter a potential goldmine, if the puppies live long enough to be sold.
But Esch is weighed down by her own problems. She is in love with Manny, an older boy who sleeps with her but won’t look her in the eye. Esch finds out that she is pregnant, and when she finally tells Manny, he turns on her and her brothers. After Daddy has a terrible accident while trying to fix his truck and as the hurricane makes landfall, Esch and her siblings have to pull together to get their ramshackle house ready. When Katrina finally hits, it is worse than anyone could have imagined. Skeetah, who has guessed Esch’s secret, must choose between saving his beloved dogs and helping his family not all of them can make it out of the storm alive.
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1. Salvage the Bones opens with China giving birth to a litter of puppies in the shed. What do we learn about Esch and the rest of the Batiste family during this scene? How does each of Esch’s brothers react to the puppies’ birth? What will Esch learn about motherhood from watching China with her puppies?
2. Esch’s summer reading assignment, Mythology by Edith Hamilton, includes the story of the tragic romance between Jason and Medea. How does the myth of Jason and Medea relate to Esch’s relationship with Manny? In the end, does Esch betray her family for love, as Medea did?
3. Chart Esch’s attitude toward her pregnancy through the twelve days of the novel. How does Esch first realize that she might be pregnant, and how does she react when her suspicion is confirmed? When do we see Esch in stages of denial, fear, and acceptance? How do Skeetah and Daddy respond when they discover Esch’s pregnancy?
4. Discuss the nature of Skeetah’s bond with his pit bull, China. Why is Skeetah so committed to China and her puppies? How does Skeetah negotiate his responsibilities to his family and to his dog?
5. How does Daddy seem to know that a storm is coming before anyone else? How do his children and neighbors react to his early preparations? Why do Daddy’s precautions fail in the face of Katrina’s destruction?
6. Esch wonders “if Daddy will feel his missing fingers the way we feel Mama, present in the absence” (247). Discuss the presence of Mama in the novel, even though she has been dead for seven years. How does Mama live on in her children’s memory?
7. The fifth chapter has the same title as the novel, “Salvage the Bones.” Review the chapter and discuss what the title means. How does the title fit the chapter as well as the novel as a whole?
8. Discuss the depiction of violence in Salvage the Bones. What do scenes of violence including Daddy’s loss of his fingers, China’s brutal killing of her puppy, and the dogfight between China and Kilo add to the novel? How do violence and tenderness coexist in this troubled setting?
9. Consider how Manny betrays Esch and her brothers. How does Manny treat Esch before and after he learns of her pregnancy? Why does Manny turn on Skeetah and China and support Rico and Kilo in the dogfight?
10. Randall tells Skeetah, “You just like Daddy. Always crazy for something” (157). Discuss the similarities and differences between Skeetah and Daddy. How do the similarities between father and son create conflict between them?
11. Discuss the setting of Salvage the Bones. How does the Pit the lot where the Batiste family has lived for generations look and feel? What is it like to grow up in the town of Bois Sauvage? What are race relations like in this rural Mississippi area?
12. Review the scenes of the hurricane, in which Esch, her brothers, and Daddy scramble from their attic to their roof to Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph’s house in order to escape the rising water. How do these family members help each other survive these treacherous conditions? Why does Daddy throw Esch into the water, and how does he later express regret?
13. Skeetah lets go of China in order to save Esch from drowning in the storm. Does Skeetah seem to regret his choice of sister over dog? What is the mood at the end of the novel, as Skeetah waits by the house for China to return to him?
14. Big Henry tells Esch, “This baby got plenty of daddies” (255). Name the “daddies” who will help Esch raise her child. What assistance does each of these boys and men have to offer?
15. Compare the portrayal of Katrina in Salvage the Bones to what you saw of the hurricane in the news. Which aspects of the storm’s devastation does this novel bring to life? What does Esch’s perspective add to your understanding of Katrina’s impact?
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"I’ve just read [Salvage the Bones], and it’ll be a long time before its magic wears off . . . Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy . . . A palpable sense of desire and sorrow animates every page here . . . Salvage the Boneshas the aura of a classic about it."
"Salvage the Bonesis the implacable lens that captures in grainy, dramatic close-ups a family’s hopes tied up in the narrowest of futures . . . By the time the storm hits and the water rises, we’re in a more universal place, where reality and myth meet, creating a timeless tale of a family that regains its humanity in the face of incalculable loss."
"Salvage the Bonesis an intense book, with powerful, direct prose that dips into poetic metaphor . . . 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."
Los Angeles Times
"The novel’s power comes from the dread of the approaching storm and a pair of violent climaxes. The first is a dog fight, an appalling spectacle given emotional depth by Skeetah’s love for the pit bull China (their bond is the strongest and most affecting in the book). When the hurricane strikes, Ms. Ward endows it, too, with attributes maternal and savage: ‘Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.’"
Wall Street Journal
"From its lyrical yet visceral first scene, this novel had me, and I hardly dared to put it down for fear a spell might be broken. But it never was or will be; such are the gifts of this writer."
Laura Kasischke, author of In a Perfect World
"Without a false note . . . A superbly realized work of fiction that, while Southern to the bone, transcends its region to become universal."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"With her tough, tense and taut tale of one rural family’s bitter and bloody fight for survival in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, [Ward] has secured herself a place among such other great Southern writers as Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and William Faulkner. Ward’s electrifying, exhilarating, edge-ofyour-seat second novel, Salvage the Bones, takes us into the naked heart of one Southern family struggling for both survival and identity. With prose both powerful and poetic, Ward has imagined an unforgettable family."
"Ward uses fearless, toughly lyrical language to convey this family’s close-knit tenderness [and] the sheer bloody-minded difficulty of rural African American life . . . It’s an eye-opening heartbreaker that ends in hope . . . You owe it to yourself to read this book."
Library Journal (starred review)
"Few works of fiction can capture the heart-wrenching emotions attached to a natural disaster, and fewer still can do it in a way that seems palpable and fresh. Salvage the Bones, the latest by rising star Jesmyn Ward, accomplishes this feat, and then some . . . From beginning to end, Jesmyn flirts with perfection in this stunning second novel, and the reader is rewarded for it."
Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)
"A pitch-perfect account of struggle and community in the rural South . . . Though the characters in Salvage the Bones face down Hurricane Katrina, the story isn’t really about the storm. It’s about people facing challenges, and how they band together to overcome adversity."
"[Salvage the Bones] is uncompromising and frank, showing both beauty and violence, poverty and resilience, in a powerful and poetic voice."
Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS)
"Jesmyn Ward has written . . . the first Katrina-drenched fiction I’d press upon readers now . . . Ward’s pacing around the hurricane is exquisite we nearly forget its impending savagery. The Batistes’ shared sacrifice is moving, made more so by their occasional shirking of sacrifice. Ward allows the letdowns integral to family life to play their part."
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Jesmyn Ward has claimed her place both as a contemporary witness of life in the rural South and as a descendant of its great originals. This memorable clan deals with the threat and then the actuality of Hurricane Katrina in much the way that Faulkner’s folk once dealt with fire and flood; the voice here is lyric, unsparing, and fierce. You won’t forget this book."
Nicholas Delbanco, author of Sherbrookes and Lastingness: The Art of Old Age
"Both unflinching and tender, heartbreaking and triumphant. A lyrical and riveting testament to the strength of the human spirit . . . This is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary writer."
Skip Horack, author of The Eden Hunter
"Salvage the Bonesis an engaging novel that, on the surface, seems like a sorrowful tale of a broken household, yet holds beneath it the cherished story of family and loyalty."
"This is a beautiful yet disturbing book that should also find its way into the hands of upper division high school teachers, who will find it a worthy addition to reading lists and literature discussions."
School Library Journal
"Hurricane Katrina lands full force in Jesmyn Ward’s probing novel . . . From such disasters, myths emerge."
"Deeply felt and bristling with breathtaking imagery, Salvage the Bones will hold its readers utterly riveted to the very last page."
Travis Holland, author of The Archivist’s Story
"[A] poetic second novel . . . Esch traces in the minutiae of every moment of every scene of her life the thin lines between passion and violence, love and hate, life and death . . . Her voice . . . [gives the book’s] cast of small lives a huge resonance."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Salvage the Bones is a novel that will make readers wince at times and tear up at others. Ward gives voice to the forgotten families of the Gulf Coast through lyrical imagery and the type of uncensored authenticity that can only be delivered through the eyes of a child . . . It is a true testament to the realities of rural poverty."
"This book is impossibly beautiful."
Carol Ann Fitzgerald, Oxford American.org
"Jesmyn Ward writes like an angel with a knife to your throat, compelling you with exquisite language and a clear voice to go where she goes, to see what she sees. Salvage the Bones is at turns unsettling and uplifting raw and honest as a dogfight, lyrical as a poem. It cuts through the clichés about poverty to arrive at a place of shocking recognition: that at the end of the day love and loyalty to family are all that sustain us."
Ken Wells, author of Meely LaBauve
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