The Gulf of Mexico is about to birth a storm, and it’s headed straight for Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. But Hurricane Katrina’s approach isn’t the first thing on teenage Esch Batiste’s mind; she’s more concerned about her newly discovered pregnancy and the baby’s father, Manny, who is dating another girl. Her brother Skeetah, on the other hand, is fixated on his pit bull China’s newborn puppies. If they live, the dogs may provide money for the Batiste children, who are living in poverty and fending for themselves as their father drinks to dull the pain of their mother’s death.

There’s an unmistakable contrast between Skeetah’s love for China and the indifference of Manny toward Esch. Manny dotes on his girlfriend but approaches Esch for sex; he pushes her away when she seeks emotional connection. Esch repeatedly draws parallels between her situation and her assigned school reading about the mythological Medea, whose husband Jason betrays her. Manny refuses her, but Esch finds support from her brothers, her father and their friends. “This baby got plenty daddies,” one boy says.

It would be easy for the events of Salvage the Bones to take on a pitying, cloying quality. But Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward’s second novel is a pitch-perfect account of struggle and community in the rural South. No doubt Ward’s own upbringing, in DeLisle, Mississippi, factored into the landscape she paints. The fictional Bois Sauvage is based on Ward’s hometown, where the population is mostly poor, black and uneducated. Ward herself broke out of that cycle with help from her mother’s employer, who paid for her private-school education.

The fictional world Ward creates sings with the speech of uneducated but wise people without stepping into caricature dialect. Though the characters in Salvage the Bones face down Hurricane Katrina, the story isn’t really about the storm. It’s about people facing challenges, and how they band together to overcome adversity.

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