A newly pregnant teenager staring down the barrel of Hurricane Katrina in rural Mississippi narrates Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage The Bones, a debut novel that begins in a sharp corner, but eventually succumbs to a general bleakness. Esch Batiste’s life was already taking a turn for the worse, and now Hurricane Katrina stands poised to threaten her family’s Bois Sauvage, Mississippi farm, which has fallen into disrepair. So poor she had to steal a pregnancy test to find out she was, indeed, carrying the child of her brother’s best friend (unbeknownst to his girlfriend), Esch knows a baby will impede her way out, something everyone in the family save 11-year-old Junior has in the works: Randall hopes for a basketball scholarship, and Skeetah devotes his attention to his prized fighting pit bull China, whose litter could keep the family in canned goods for months. Even their father hopes the approaching storm will help him drum up business with his rusty, rotting dump truck. When Esch’s father becomes bedridden in the lead-up to the storm, Esch and her brothers struggle to prepare the house by themselves.
The recent Salon.com article “Modern Steinbecks emerge to chronicle tough times” described literature set among hardscrabble families like Esch’s—singling out Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon A River, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, and Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff—as resurging due to the current economic crisis. Featuring protagonists with hardscrabble ingenuity instead of book smarts, and predatory or absent elders, these books hearken back to a younger, more dangerous America, argues writer Jeff Martin—but also, he neglects to mention, play into the exoticization of lives unlike those of readers who are inclined to pick up literary fiction.
It’s to Ward’s credit that Salvage The Bones unfolds along Esch’s sightlines, not those of an outsider peering into her window. And on top of her more pedestrian worries, like how to sneak extra food when there’s barely enough to go around, Hurricane Katrina casts a meaningfully menacing shadow, operating above the gimmick level. (Its appearance in anticipation for most of the book is a useful device.)
Yet Ward still walks the line between depicting the family’s misery and, in mining it for poetic contrast, reveling in its messiness. 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.