Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward‘s National Book Award-winning story of a 14-year-old African-American girl and her family living near the Mississippi coast in the days before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.
From the publisher:
A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting.
As the twelve days that make up the novel’s framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family–motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce–pulls itself up to face another day. A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.
Salvage the Bones has a teenage protagonist, but to be clear, this is not a Young Adult novel. It’s more complex, with longer sentences and paragraphs than you’ll typically find in books marketed to teens. It’s divided into twelve long chapters, each representing a day. Despite this, it is completely accessible to teen audiences and builds plenty of suspense with a driving narrative that should appeal to most teen readers.
In addition to Esch and her family and friends, the Pit and the landscape around their house serves as a character by itself. Salvage the Bones plays upon readers’ knowledge of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina will bring. The area around their house lies in a low area. The scraps of wood they salvage to board up windows are rotten and don’t cover the glass entirely. It creates suspense for what will happen to this family in this spot in the days to come.
It’s clear in Salvage the Bones that, although living in terrible poverty, Esch is smart. She’s a good student. But she’s made some very poor choices and has to decide if and how to let her baby’s father know she’s pregnant. He is older than her and has taken advantage of her. It doesn’t seem like he, nor Esch’s father, will appreciate the news. This tension, on multiple fronts, is heartbreaking as it plays out.
Salvage the Bones was a rich, emotionally moving novel, and I highly recommend it.