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Jesmyn Ward

Award Star National Book Award

A-Salvage-the-Bones-1Jesmyn Ward, raised in a poor black area of rural Mississippi, lived through Hurricane Katrina--the subject of her second novel. Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award.

The Story: Esch Batiste, 14, is so poor that she must steal a pregnancy test to find out that she's pregnant with the child of her brother's philandering best friend. But unwanted pregnancy (and all it implies for any hope of escape out of rural Mississippi) is just one problem that Esch--the only girl among four siblings and an alcoholic father--faces as she compares her love plight to that of the mythical Greek figure Medea. Largely raised by themselves after the death of their mother, the siblings desperately pray for better lives: Randall sets his sights on a basketball scholarship; Skeetah, devoted to his cherished fighting pit bull China, hopes the sale of the puppies will allow them too eat. Told in 12 chapters--the ten days preceding Hurricane Katrina, the day of the hurricane, and the day after it--Salvage the Bones explores one family's deep bonds and terrible plight amid even greater tragedy.
Bloomsbury. 272 pages. $24. ISBN: 9781608195220

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars"The story's suspense lies less in wondering how they will fare in the hurricane than in watching how each faces individual trials. ... File it under ‘future classic.'" Pamela Miller

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars"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. ... This may be Ward's most masterful move: her ability to capture the tenderness between a boy and his dog, while also rendering their joint enthusiasm for these vicious fights sickeningly believable." Ron Charles

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars"The devotion between Esch's brother Skeeter and China is so bracing that Salvage the Bones acts as a stiff corrective to the soft-core dog lit spawned by Marley and Me. Moreover, Ward's pacing around the hurricane is exquisite--we nearly forget its impending savagery." Karen R. Long

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars"There's something of Faulkner to Ward's grand diction, which rolls between teenspeak (‘I'ma get Randall'; ‘My dog ain't lose') and the larger, incantatory rhythms of myth. ... Katrina ... is not a subject that can be considered in small language, and nor, for that matter, are the problems of this small family, who face their maiming with such courage and grace." Olivia Laing

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"Ward, 34, accepted the National Book Award saying that she wanted to write about poor, black rural Southerners in such a way that the greater culture would see their stories--‘our stories,' she said--as universal. In this novel of dogfighting, unwanted pregnancy and poverty, she has done just that." Carolyn Kellogg

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars"Early scenes--of pups arriving, some of them dying, of the shooting and gutting of a squirrel, of desperate, bloody dog fights and limb-risking efforts to steal supplies, of friends and family striking out in crazed efforts to survive in sweat and dirt and steam-heat, of characters getting bitten and sliced and broken--are full-frontal, graphic. ... Ward orchestrates a power and scale so furious, so consuming--with an aftermath of such utter ruin--we can honestly feel, like the Batistes, we never saw it coming." Joan Frank

Onion AV Club 2.5 of 5 Stars"As elegantly as she writes the Batistes, embroidering the ways they pull together in crisis, Ward still intrudes on their tender scenes to seek out the ugliness of their lives below sea level. Avoiding the sentimentality that might have lit stories like Esch's in other accounts is a desirable goal, but Salvage The Bones' accumulation of detail tips the scale on the side of wretchedness and takes with it the humanity of its protagonist." Ellen Wernecke

Critical Summary

A few critics noted that Salvage the Bones could have been a disaster with its shopworn focus on rural poverty but that Ward's sensitive and honest handling of familial relationships and passions amid such circumstance makes the novel a standout in its genre. Ward acknowledges inspiration from Faulkner, and, indeed, her dialogue and sense of place make the comparison valid. Esche's strong, powerful voice carries the story as she struggles to find out what love is, but it is the bond between Skeetah and his fighting dog that will be remembered, perhaps, as the strongest relationship in the novel. Only the Onion AV Club critic felt that the novel is simply too bleak to enjoy. But the rest of us will remember Ward's description of the hurricane's blind terror and the strength of the sibling love that may--or may not--overcome terrible odds.