Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones Book Cover Salvage the Bones
Jesmyn Ward

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. He’s a hard drinker, largely absent, and it isn’t often he worries about the family. 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; at fifteen, she has just realized she’s pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one. 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 a 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

Review: 

The way I feel about Salvage the Bones, a National Book Award winner, is the same way I felt about the classics they made me read in high school English: I know I’m supposed to love the book, I just don’t know why.

I’m sure that that some of you might read Salvage the Bones and appreciate it in a way that I did not. While reading it, you might pick up on, and enjoy, the symbolism and the themes of love, motherhood, and destruction. You might glean gems of wisdom and hope from this tale of devastation and loss. You might find Ward’s story “poetic,” “moving,” “beautiful,” and “deep,” all words that I’ve heard others use to describe this novel. You might even decide that it’s one of the best books you’ve ever read. If this is the case, then more power to you. This is how I wanted to feel, but it just didn’t happen for me.

My issue with Salvage the Bones isn’t that it’s rough and bleak and graphic, although those characteristics certainly didn’t do much to make me feel positively towards the novel. My problem is that I didn’t feel a connection to Ward’s story in any way.  Despite how tough and lonely and unfair life is for the family at the center of the novel, I didn’t feel sorrow or pity for them. The extent of my emotional response to this book was remarking, “Well, that’s unfortunate,” on a few occasions. I didn’t dislike the characters, but I wasn’t drawn to them, either, and for this reason I was mostly ambivalent toward the story.

In only two circumstances did I feel strong emotion while reading this book. The first circumstance was any scene involving Skeetah’s pitbulls, and in this case the emotions I experienced were all negative. I was sickened by the gruesome dog fights that were portrayed and even glorified in this book, and I felt such strong disgust that I had to skim over some sections of text. The second circumstance in which I felt strong emotion was at the very end, when Esch is surveying the utter devastation brought about by Hurricane Katrina. I felt grief and pity quite sharply then, but this scene accounted for not even a tenth of the story and therefore didn’t do much to change my opinion of the book.

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