Salvage the Bones: Book summary and reviews of Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones

A Novel

by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward X
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
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Book Summary

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 fifteen 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, set in the lead-up to Hurricane Katrina, 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.

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Book Awards

  • award image National Book Awards, 2011


Media Reviews

"Starred Review. [A] poetic second novel … [main character] Esch traces in the minutiae of every moment of every scene of her life the thin lines between passion and violence, love and hate, life and death … her voice …[gives] its cast of small lives a huge resonance." - Publishers Weekly

"This looks both beautiful and heartbreaking and would be excellent for book clubs." - Library Journal

"Author Ward has an unfortunate tendency to overwrite, and this coming-of-age story tends at times to get lost in its style." - Booklist

"Powerful, tense, and absorbing; Jesmyn Ward develops the characters so well, and these people are survivors. The pacing is excellent—although you know the storm is coming, you are still consumed by the tension. And the writing of the storm scene is brilliant. I was in the water with them." - Louise Jones, Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT

"I started reading at seven thirty Saturday morning, thinking I'd give myself an hour to read before doing the ever-mounting list of chores around the house … Four hours later I could not put it down until I finished! Reminds me of Daniel Woodrell, Flannery O'Connor, and others. What an authentic voice and what a beautiful writer." - Dawn Braasch, Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Vineyard Haven, MA

"It's a taut, powerful novel with characters that draw you wholly into a world that while alien to most readers is presented so compellingly that one feels a strong connection to Esch and her family's place and circumstance. Just like the hurricane that you know is coming, there is a palpable tension that moves the story forward and makes you want to hurry through, but at the same time, there are so many great sentences and turns of phrase that you feel you must slow down and savor the words on the page. I also really love the mythology references and the way they gel with the modern-day storyline." - Cody Morrison, Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi

"Jesmyn Ward is an extraordinary writer. While Salvage the Bones is not a pretty story, it is so well written and compelling that I had a hard time putting it down. Ms. Ward has a terrific ear for dialogue, and you meet characters not found in most other writing. I love Esch. She is smart and real, and her relationship with her siblings is beautifully rendered." - Korje Guttormsen, Books Inc., San Francisco, CA

"With Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward has written the best sort of novel—a beautiful, important book that's both unflinching and tender, heartbreaking and triumphant. A lyrical and riveting testament to the strength of the human spirit, as well as the power of family and community. Ward's paragraphs are like songs, lifting us even as the authenticity of this world and these characters keeps the ground in clear sight. This is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary writer." - Skip Horack, author of The Southern Cross and The Eden Hunter

"Jesmyn Ward writes like an angel with a knife to your throat, compelling you with exquisite language and a clear voice to go where she goes, to see what she sees. Salvage the Bones is at turns unsettling and uplifting—raw and honest as a dogfight, lyrical as a poem. It cuts through the clichés about poverty to arrive at a place of shocking recognition: that at the end of the day love and loyalty to family are all that sustain us." - Ken Wells, author of Meely LaBauve

"A fiercely beautiful portrait of lives caught quite literally in the maelstrom that was Hurricane Katrina. Salvage the Bones more than lives up to the promise so evident in Jesmyn Ward's much-praised first novel, Where the Line Bleeds. It surpasses that promise, and does so in one deft stride. Deeply felt and bristling with breathtaking imagery, Salvage the Bones will hold its readers utterly riveted to the very last page." - Travis Holland, author of The Archivist's Story

This information about Salvage the Bones was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Cathryn Conroy

A Must-Read Literary Masterpiece That Is Shocking, Heartbreaking, and an Emotional Sucker Punch
This is a book that broke my heart many times over. It shocked me. It was an emotional sucker punch. And it is a literary masterpiece.

Written by Jesmyn Ward, this is the story of the Batistes, a poor Black family living in a rundown house on rundown land peppered with rundown junk in the rural Mississippi coastal town of Bois Sauvage as Hurricane Katrina looms at sea, taking direct aim on them. And while that hurricane is churning in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, an emotional hurricane is churning in the lives of this family.

Each of the 12 chapters covers a single day, leading up to Katrina's landfall on day 11 of the book. The novel is written in the first-person voice of Esch, a 15-year-old girl who thinks she does only two things well: She can run really fast, and she enjoys having sex. And while Esch has allowed several of her older brothers' friends to have sex with her since she was 12, she has fallen in love with Manny, who is 19. Now only he is allowed to touch her. But Manny is cruelly using her, which becomes a real problem since Esch is pregnant with Manny's baby. She has no one to tell and no one to help her. Meanwhile, her older brother Skeetah, who has groomed his pit bull, China, as a prize-winning fighter, is doting on the dog as she has her first litter of puppies. Randall has thoughts only for basketball, while the littlest one, Junior, follows Esch and Randall everywhere. Their mother died in childbirth with Junior, and their father is an alcoholic who is obsessed with the coming hurricane. And then that hurricane blasts its wrath over the vulnerable land.

"Bois Sauvage" is a fictional town, meaning "wild wood" in French. It is indeed wild and almost savage. But the love and care that family and friends offer each other is what tames those wild woods where white neighbors shoot at them and the pit bulls viciously tear each other apart for their owners' financial benefit. It's not an easy life, and the characters grab at happiness wherever they can find it, be in a bottle of booze, sex, basketball, or a dog.

Masterfully written in prose that is so lyrical and expressive it is almost poetic, this novel is destined to become a classic read in English classes a century from now. It is a literary gift. The book has everything: a gripping, wrenching plot, authentic characters, the powerful symbolism of the intensity of mother love juxtaposed with brutal, bloody violence, and imagery so vivid you will feel the oppressive heat, the howling wind, and the sting of red ants. Also, it should win an award for the best similes; some were so beautiful they almost made me weep.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of the novel is how Ward has interwoven the ancient Greek myth of "The Golden Fleece" throughout the story. In this myth, Medea killed her two children by her husband Jason for revenge after he was unfaithful. Esch, who is reading Edith Hamilton's book "Mythology" for her summer assigned reading, identifies with Medea as she slowly accepts the fact of her pregnancy and shakes off the cloak of apathy.

Most of all, this is just a really, really good story about the brutal struggle for survival—one that grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go.

Read it while you can! This is one of the dozens of books the state of Texas wants to ban. The specific reason cited for "Salvage the Bones" is the explicit descriptions of 15-year-old Esch having sex. Meanwhile, those defending the book insist it has important literary value and therefore is not obscene.

Claire M. (New York, NY)

Salvage the Bones
This is so well written that I even got through most of the dog fight. Narrated by a young girl, Esch, who describes her daily life in a swamp in Louisiana as Katrina comes closer and finally bears down on the poorest of the poor, it is a heartbreaking story but one that also shows the inner strength of our forgotten neighbors. Comparing herself to Medea in the way her own life unfolds, Esch lives out the treachery of living in poverty and the choices that are made. Metaphor, simile, and the gloriously descriptive use of language lead me to believe Jesmyn Ward will be telling stories for a long time.

Tricia L. (Auburn, WA)

Heartwrenching poverty and suffering in a powerful tale.
Wow. This book put me right there watching the run-up and aftermath of Katrina. It is so eye-opening and yet I feel like there is hope for us all because of these brave characters. Great read.

Mary B. (Roswell, GA)

Beautiful and Heartbreaking Story
Salvage the Bones is the story of a family on the Gulf coast readying for Hurricane Katrina. The family is poor, black, motherless yet they work together to prepare for the hurricane, all of them doing the best they can.

The main character is a young teenage girl, named Esch, who is struggling to accept a pregnancy while longing for a confidante or some kind of help for her seemingly impossible situation. She is smitten with the baby's father, but he doesn't love her. The story of Medea is interwoven into the narrative. Will the girl betray her family for her lover or remain faithful to her father and brothers?

The character of the father is fascinating. He is the only one who really understands the severity of the oncoming storm and although he works as hard as possible to protect his family and their home, tearing apart outbuildings and raiding wood from an abandoned house, he ends up being unable to do much for the family during the actual storm, serving as an example of the younger generation coming of age.

One of the sons, Skeetah, has a white pit bull dog named China, who has a litter of puppies in the story. Skeetah nurtures her as if she were a lover, and a dangerous one at that. I had a hard time with the cruelty and violence of the dog fighting scenes, but the author does a good job of putting them into context of the narrative and letting you understand the motivations of members of the dog fighting culture.

Overall, it is a story of a family's loyalty to each other in the face of a dangerous natural disaster. They manage to cope in the only ways that they can and in the end discover who in their community they can really trust.

I would recommend this book to readers who like more serious and literary reading. This is not light beach book.

Judi S. (Boyes Hot Springs, CA)

Salvage the Bones
Salvage the Bones blew through my life much like Hurricane Katrina roared through Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and the lives of the Batiste family.
The day to day details of life for pregnant 14 year old Esch and her brothers are often brutal and difficult to read, but Ward's gorgeous writing and her ability to help us see through Esch's eyes and love with her heart make it worth the discomfort.
I adore a strong character-driven book and Savage the Bones is bursting with heroes! This would be a fantastic choice for a book group. Savage the Bones shines a light on one of America's greatest tragedies and gives a voice to some of it's most invisible inhabitants.

Kelly P. (Monterey, TN)

A captivating tale
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The setting and the language immerse the reader in the life of a poor Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. While Hurricane Katrina lurks in the background it is not the focal point of the novel. Instead the plot revolves around the characters and how their own decisions, and the decisions of their loved ones, impacts their lives. The writing style is reminiscent of other Southern authors such as William Gay, Larry Brown and Tom Franklin which is high praise in my opinion.

...15 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Jesmyn Ward Author Biography

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and is currently a professor of creative writing at Tulane University. She is the author of the novels Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award, and Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the 2017 National Book Award. She is also the editor of the anthology The Fire This Time and the author of the memoir Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

From 2008-2010, Ward had a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. She was the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi for the 2010-2011 academic year. In 2016, the American Academy of Arts and Letters selected Ward for the Strauss Living Award. She lives in ...

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