Wednesday, January 25, 2012

While Katrina Comes: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I bend over and scrub my face dry with my shirt, but the tears still come.

"I can't," I sob.

"I need you," said Randall.

And then I get up because it is the only thing I can do. I step out of the ditch and brush the ants off because it's the only thing I can do; if this is strength, if this is weakness, this is what I do.

After Mama died, Daddy said, What are you crying for? Stop crying. Crying ain't going to change anything. We never stopped crying. We just did it quieter. We hid it.

This was the only thing we could do.

Jesmyn Ward's 2011 National Book Award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2011), traces the cataclysmic approach of Hurricane Katrina made concrete in the story of the twelve days in one rural family's lives as the storm grows and strikes.

In the beginning only Daddy is prophetically manic with concern about the storm, raging when his children, all teenagers except seven-year-old Junior, belittle his orders to help prepare for the storm, as yet only a tropical depression in the Atlantic. Oldest son Randall is consumed with his desire to win a basketball scholarship and the upcoming playoff game is his only chance to star and initiate that dream. Skeetah is obsessed with his fighting pit-bull China, about to give birth to her first litter, promising part of his earnings from the sale of the pups to Randall for basketball camp. Main character and narrator, fourteen-year-old Esch is preoccupied with the realization that she is pregnant with a child by her brother's friend Manny, who is oblivious to her situation, oblivious in his interest in another girl.

As the hurricane develops, each of the family's personal storms grows and comes to a climax, until the final approach of Katrina focuses the attention of all upon the storm, breaking with a ferocity that destroys everything they own, stripping them all down to what they really are, a family that in the end helps each other survive and understand that their bonds and their hopes are what they really have to begin again.

Ward skillfully assigns epic, mythical proportions to her story by interweaving the classical Greek tale of Jason and Medea with the struggles of the Baptiste family. In fact, Medea is not the central symbol, but a sort of touchstone, destroyer and preserver, sometimes linked to the white dog China, the mother who gives life and sometimes takes it away, sometimes haunting Esch, who is fixated on the story of Medea as she, the memory of her mother's death still fresh, tries to conceive of herself as a mother, as one who therein holds life and death within her own will, and sometimes seen as the storm Katrina itself.

...Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember....

This is not a book for children, filled as it is with the blood, sweat, and tears of life, but mature young adult readers, high school juniors and seniors, those with a grasp of literary tradition and elements of the novel, will find this book absorbing and intensely insightful. The New York Times reviewer points up the dual nature of this novel, a contemporary story on its own, but also a story as primordial as mankind itself: ..."smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it's an ancient, archetypal tale." The Washington Post says "Masterful… Salvage the Bones has the aura of a classic about it." Indeed, Salvage the Bones: A Novel has the promise of joining iconic novels like Moby Dick and To Kill a Mockingbird among those great American novels, firmly rooted in a particular time and place and yet universal in their theme.

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