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Randall Reads: Out of Disaster, Salvation…Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones”

February 19, 2012 1 comment

Poverty. Single-parent family. Teenage pregnancy. Alcoholism. Dog Fighting. Dismemberment. Hurricane Katrina.

As top-line topics go, “Salvage the Bones” touches on some pretty big bummers.

That being said, there is a constant breeze of humanity and family blowing through Jesmyn Ward’s pages, strongest after the storm has passed and the waters have receded.

People much smarter about literature and the written word awarded this novel the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, so I write this with a heavy amount of consideration that there’s a good chance I’m missing/misunderstanding something about this novel. This is not to say that I found the book to be poorly written or any such thing. To the contrary, there is quite a lot I enjoyed about this book. The story, language, and characters all have a way of sticking with you.

But, until one of those smarter people are able to explain to me what I’m missing, I would have to opine that it is not the best book I’ve read published within the window for qualification for that prize. (Yeah, I preferred “The Tiger’s Wife.” Sue me.)

This may all come down to one (perceived) flaw, to be honest. It is such a big flaw, however, I’m surprised it didn’t hinder the novel’s rise to glory and that I haven’t read other reviews finding fault with it.

Of course, all that means is that it’s probably more a personal hang-up and those smart people would just shake their heads at my words in disappointment. This would be sad because I know Victor LaValle to have been among the panelists who selected the award winner.

I like LaValle!

I have to say, however, that it eventually drove me CRAZY how many times Esch (the narrator and protagonist) refers to Medea as she’s reading about her in Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and becomes an ├╝ber-obvious parallel for her own story.

Well, there are elements which might not be as clear, but, (un)luckily Ward and Esch are there to point them out for you page after page after page. It’s a little maddening, making me want to scream, “ALRIGHT! I GET IT ALREADY!”

Except that I often read during my bus commute to and from the city and would, at least be an unwelcome drawing of unwelcome attention. At most, I could be thrown off the bus due to the misunderstanding.

Anyhow, this became such a prominent thing within the story that it began to hinder my enjoyment of the otherwise-masterful storytelling. I distinctly remember turning a page and quickly skimming to see where the next reference to Medea and Jason and the Argonauts would be. Not finding one for three consecutive pages felt like a triumph.

A triumph I celebrated quietly.

I hate to linger on this singular issue too much, especially as it seems to have not bothered anyone else too much. It is MY review however, and it is a huge part of my overall experience of having read the book.

Since it was not enough to otherwise ruin the book for me, though, I shall proceed.

Ward does a great job of drawing her scene and characters. “The Pit” and its inhabitants are memorable and likable, warts and all. Esch and her brothers–Randall, Skeetah, and Junior–are the primary family members through which you experience the story, with their deceased mother’s spirit playing as big a role emotionally as their Daddy does physically. You’ll instinctively love Big Henry and be suspicious of Manny. In fact, I think those two secondary/tertiary characters are as memorable as any I can think of.

Generally, I don’t do story recapping, because I don’t really like to read story recaps in book reviews. I think it’s fairly well known this book takes place in the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina hitting the gulf coast. It would be a mistake to confuse that event to be the novel’s subject matter. It certainly has some allegorical qualities, but this is a much smaller (hence, larger) story about people and family and overcoming and love (“love as certainty”).

Keep in mind before picking it up, however, there are some heavy, heavy topics in this book (remember the first line of the review?). If it’s going to just bum you out, ┬áthen…sorry. If you can see through some rough times (reading about dog fighting isn’t going to appeal to many, I’m sure), you’ll get a lot out of this book…even if the continued referencing to Greek mythology gets tired.