As a hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, Esch and her family struggle together to live and love in the face of the restrictive realities of rural poverty.
Jesmyn Ward makes beautiful music, plays deftly with her reader’s expectations: where we expect violence, she gives us sweetness. When we brace for beauty, she gives us blood … Best of all, she gives us a singular heroine who breaks the mold of the typical teenage female protagonist. Esch isn’t plucky or tomboyish. She’s squat, sulky and sexual. But she is beloved — her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior are fine and strong; they brawl and sacrifice and steal for her and each other. And Esch is in bloom … For all its fantastical underpinnings, Salvage the Bones is never wrong when it comes to suffering. Sorrow and pain aren’t presented as especially ennobling. They exist to be endured — until the next Katrina arrives to ‘cut us to the bone.’
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way 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 … [Ward’s] description of the storm, the blind terror, the force of wind and water, is filled with visceral panic. What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
The ‘black heart of Bois Sauvage’ isn't all rotten...It's also a place of unearthly beauty, a wild wood planted with magnolias and live oaks. Esch and the boys run in packs, swimming in the black waters of the Pit, their feet permanently dusted with orange dirt. It's the kind of home that leaves its mark on your skin, and though they might fight, the siblings' bond is unbreakably tight … There's something of Faulkner to Ward's grand diction, which rolls between teenspeak and the larger, incantatory rhythms of myth.