Esch’s mother died in childbirth leaving her the lone female in a family of men full of desperation and desires. When Dad isn’t nursing the loss of his wife with alcohol, he focuses on natural disasters – last year it was tornados, this year it’s the storms brewing in the Gulf. He battens down the house and attends to his truck, hoping not just to survive but to make money using the truck to do odd jobs after the hurricane. As he hunkers down, his distracted boys hanker to save themselves each in his way. Athletic Randall focuses on an upcoming basketball game where he could earn a scholarship to basketball camp and then be noticed by scouts. Skeeter cares for his pitbull, China, a champion in local dog fights, and her litter of pups which Skeeter can sell for enough money to provide for everyone. Tagalong Junior alternately wants to be a part of the action or cling to family members like the life rafts they are.
And then there’s Esch whose currency is her body, a body she’s freely given to any of her brothers’ friends who’s wanted it until she fell deeply in love with Manny, the father of the child she discovers she’s carrying. Problem is 19-year-old Manny’s also got another love interest, the lovelier, lighter-skinned, less available Shaliyah.
Sex isn’t the only way Esch opens her body. She’s acutely attuned to what her world looks like, sounds like, feels like, tastes like and smells like. Jessmyn Ward precedes the novel with three quotes. One, from the poem “Now” by Gloria Fuertes reads:
For though I’m small, I know many things,
And my body is an endless eye
Through which, unfortunately, I see everything.”
Fortunately for the reader Esch’s body takes it all in –birthing; dogfights; man fights; farm accidents; thefts; skinny dipping; pregnancy; hunger; Vienna sausages and potted meat; roasted squirrel; the woods and the fields that surround her home; the scooped out pit full of husks of cars, appliances and an old RV; the skeleton of a nearby house where her grandparents once lived in better days, a house now reduced to scrap they salvage.
Esch describes her world with visceral vision, blending an artist’s eye and poet’s ear with gut responses, transforming what her body tells her into yearning, descriptive language. At times, the reader feels as if we are looking over her shoulder as she sketches line after line showing the muscles of her brothers, bodies in motion, hunger, sweat, and attitudes.
Her language lunges into metaphor, sometimes imperfectly, sometimes achingly beautifully. Wave after wave of sensual description flows, similes made of simple objects are rendered so forcefully that the reader’s mind may wander to beyond Esch’s reaching grasp to Ward’s careful crafting.
“Manny threw a basketball from hand to hand. Seeing him broke the cocoon of my rib cage, and my heart unfurled to fly.” (page 5)
“Manny’s face was smooth and only his body spoke: his muscles jabbered like chickens.” (page 11)
“My eyes wanted to search for Manny so badly the want felt like an itch on my temple, but I kept walking.” (page 14)
“I can’t remember exactly how I followed Mama because her skin was dark as the reaching oak trees, and she never wore bright colors: no fingernail pink, no forsythia blue, no banana yellow. P 22 (Just what color is forsythia blue?)” (page 22)
“Randall lets Junior go, and Junior hangs on until he can’t anymore, until his legs turn to noodles and he is sliding down Randall like a pole.” (page 43)
“Junior folds his arms over his chest, his ribs like a small grill burnt black.” (page 44)
“I’m surprised that Daddy doesn’t have that sweet bread smell of morning beer on him.” (page 62)
“We fall into a pace. My face feels tight and hot, and the air coming into my nose feels like water. I am swimming through the air.” (page 66)
“Daddy is wiggling from underneath the truck. It bulks over him like the rest of the detritus in the yard: refrigerators rusted so that they look like deviled eggs sprinkled with paprika, pieces of engines, a washing machine so old it has an arm that swished the clothes around and looks like a handheld cake mixer.” (page 89)
“Sometimes I wonder if Junior remembers anything, or if his head is like a colander, and the memories of who bottle-fed him, who licked his tears, who mothered him, squeeze through the metal like water to run down the drain, and only leave the present day, his sand holes, his shirtless bird chest, Randall yelling at him: his present washed clean of memory like vegetables washed clean of the dirt they grow in. “(page 91)
If Esch seems precocious in her use of figurative language and vocabulary – using words such as desultory, indolently, opaque and detritus -- words beyond the average range of most 15 year-olds --, it may be because she reads. Her English teacher, Mrs. Dedeaux (who shares a last name with Jesmyn Ward’s brother Joshua to whom the book is dedicated) has assigned summer reading. Last year it was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. This year it’s Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Esch connects most directly to the story of Medea and Jason; their myth foils the multiple lover and mother roles she contemplates.
There’s her own lovers’ triangle with Manny choosing coy Shaliyah over Esch after Esch has given him everything.
China sets an example by resembling Medea when she’s fighting the father of her litter or tending to her pups. China’s also fiercely loved by Skeeter, who will do almost anything for her, defying, competing with Dad for resources and even stealing in order to provide for his dog and her pups. In turn, Skeeter, who often seems more attuned to his animals than humans, is closest to Esch and knows her best.
Esch also sees a likeness to Medea in one version of Mother Nature, the wrathful Katrina.
The remembered presence of her mother provides an alternative model of how to be female. Esch recalls the way she gathered eggs, attracted Dad, killed chickens, fished and cooked shark, danced and even gave birth. These memory remnants reveal a happier, more stable and civilized past, particularly when her grandparents still lived on and farmed the land.
Ward’s book does not rest on character and description alone. Each chapter, each day, brings its own arc -- a crisis, a violent episode, an adventure or a revelation. There’s a lot of blood, several wounds – some only nicks, others requiring more healing. When Katrina finally hits, the whole rises to a riveting climax followed by a sweet and hopeful denouement.
While Esch may compare her life to ancient Greek myths, my mind wanders to more American archtypes. Esch, the marginalized child of a struggling drunk, has a voice with echoes of an all-American literary hero. Like Huck Finn, she just a kid full of pluck, with a virtuous heart, gritty integrity and folksy narrative skills. Whereas his is a quintessentially American male adventure tale -- men and boys running away from mothers and wives, hers is female, the domestic adventure of women and mothers settling and civilizing among men. Perhaps Mrs. Dedeaux will assign Mark Twain’s s great American novel for summer reading next year so Esch can find her own similarities.
Note: This is the first book I have chosen to read because of a blog review. Luke reviewed the book on Basso Profundo, in a shorter, pithier rave than this. Salvage the Bones also won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, an award that seems to most often parallel my literary fiction reading tastes.