Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

In case you didn’t know, I host a podcast called Purple Diary that highlights people I enjoy and who offer insights on topics I find interesting. At the end of every episode, I ask my guests to give me (and my listeners) a book recommendation. This is the second book I’ve read based on a podcast guest recommendation, and it came from my very brilliant friend Candice who has an incredibly well-researched blog about the many systemic changes needed in the criminal justice system. I had never heard of Jesmyn Ward or this book, but I was intrigued. I’d read an interesting description of it and threw it in my cart when I was picking up a couple new books on Amazon. It had great reviews, so I figured it had to be decent. It is decent, but it’s certainly not what I was expecting. 

The Rundown

Salvage the Bones is told from the perspective of Esch Batiste, a 15-year-old girl living with her father and three brothers (two older, one younger) in rural Mississippi. The book spans only 12 days, wherein the inner workings of life on the Pit (aka the Batiste home) are explained from Esch’s perspective. Esch’s oldest brother, Skeetah, has a pitbull named China who gives birth in the first chapter of the book. The relationship between Skeetah and China proves to be the strongest one in the book, and their mutual love for each other (not in a beastiality kind of way) is powerful. Esch finds out that she’s pregnant by her older brother Randall’s friend, Manny, and she attempts to hide the pregnancy which becomes more difficult as the story progresses. At its core, Salvage the Bones is a tale of family, love, and how urgency affects our priorities. 

Length: 258 pages

Additional Sections: Living Through a Category Five Hurricane and Q&A with Jesmyn Ward. I don’t think either one is a must-read. The first one is an excerpt from an NPR interview with the author. I skimmed the Q&A, but I didn’t see any questions that I really wanted the answers to. Both are at the end of the book.

Genre: Fiction (but based on the author’s real-life experience surviving Hurricane Katrina)

Year Published: 2011

The Good Stuff

I could tell pretty early on from this book that the author had a background in either English or creative writing. The book is beautifully written. I think the descriptions of the landscape were done very well. Most of the book takes place on the large plot of land where the Batiste family lives and in the woods. Ward does a great job of painting where the dogs sleep, how the house is set up, and how well the kids know the woods. I also think the use of metaphors and the way that she tied Skeetah and China’s relationship to Medea and Jason is fascinating. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a first-person book that’s really about the relationship between two other characters, and I found that very creative and interesting. 

The weaving of relationships in this book is spot-on. Everything is clear. Skeetah’s a loner who loves his dog and his family more than anyone. Big Henry loves Esch who loves Manny who loves Shaliyah. Junior is just like Skeetah. Randall has to be the big brother because Skeetah has dedicated his life to China. Everything makes sense from the beginning. There is no confusion about what everyone’s place is. Even when people’s reactions to things are revealed throughout the story, they’re not really a surprise. I’m not sure if this was the author’s intention, but it was all clear to me. I liked it. 

Skeetah’s relationship with China is a big part of the book. She’s the mother to his new pitbull puppies, and he does everything in his power to make her comfortable. Skeetah takes China to dog fights, and she has a reputation for being tougher and stronger than most of the dogs in Bois Sauvage. I didn’t know anything about dog fighting, so I found it interesting to read the scene in the book where dog fighting takes place. I thought that part was written very well and had a good pace to it. 

I also thought that Ward discussed Esch’s situation very well. She’s a 15-year-old girl who’s trying to hide a pregnancy and has to be a tomboy while managing morning sickness, extreme fatigue, and a growing belly. It’s never clear exactly why she hides it for so long – her dad’s not really religious and it doesn’t seem like anyone would be mad about it – but Ward really takes us through her symptoms and how hiding her pregnancy becomes a challenge. 

The Not-So-Good Stuff

For me to really be into a book, I need to be hooked in the first 20 pages. If the storyline doesn’t establish where we’re going and get me excited, I’m bored. It took about 50-60 pages for me to be interested in what was going on. Even when it did get more interesting, it wasn’t a page-turner. I wasn’t invested in the characters, and I think that made it hard for me to care about their every action in a book that only spans 12 days. The book was pretty consistent in its level of activity except for two parts in the book, and I wish there would’ve been more points of excitement all throughout the story. 

I also didn’t really like the conversation about colorism in the book. Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m a dark skinned woman and I think colorism is a topic that needs to be discussed more in the black community. My issue with this book is that the author (who is a light skinned woman) was writing from the perspective of a dark skinned girl AND made it a point to talk about her discomfort in her own skin. Now I have zero problem with black people writing about other black people regardless of shade. But I think light skinned people guessing at what it’s like to be dark skinned can come off the wrong way if it’s not written well. I don’t think the author did a great job of fleshing out Esch’s feelings about being dark skinned, and I didn’t really like how much she valued this boy who was light skinned and treating her like garbage. She literally referred to him as golden all throughout the book, and I think their relationship and how it affected her self-esteem could’ve used more attention. 

Overall Rating: 7/10

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