Jesmyn Ward's latest book, Salvage the Bones, didn't get a lot of attention before rising out of the dust with the National Book Award in 2011. Thank god it won the award, it's the best book I've read this year.
The story follows a family living near the coast in Mississippi during the ten days proceeding hurricane Katrina, and the day of the storm. The main character, Esch, lives with her father and brothers in a ramshackle house. Esch is fifteen years old, precocious, smart, kind, and pregnant. In her world, there are no choices.
Ward gives depth to every character in this novel, elevating them out their dire poverty so the reader sees the soul within. Even Esch's alcoholic father has moments of kindness and care, although he is largely absent or at the periphery while the kids make their own way. Esch's brother, Skeet, has a pitbull named China who is like his soulmate. Her brother Randall has hung all of his hopes on basketball camp and discovery by a college scout. Her youngest brother Junior is a typical bratty child, a necessary character in this book. He grounds the family in reality.
The characters are treated with care. They never veer into mere stereotype. Even Randall's friends who come around are not mere thugs or cretins, they are kids. Esch lets them take advantage of her, but her love for one of them above all others shines through. Ward shows Esch's turmoil and pain, her most heartfelt desires.
Perhaps these characteristics sound like something out of an ordinary romance novel. Ward's use of language and metaphor set this book apart. One criticism has been that it's hard to believe a fifteen year old girl in the sticks of Mississippi could have the observations Esch has in the novel. This criticism speaks more of the reader than the writer. Ward is careful to show Esch's intelligence and thoughtfulness, her awareness of the world around her. Popular opinion holds that poor people can not be smart people, they can't be as educated so they can't be as poetic. Tell that to James Baldwin.
The hurricane adds tension to the story for the reader but not for the characters. As readers, we know what is to come as soon as Esch's father says the storm has a name and that name is Katrina. As typical in hurricane-prone regions, the families in this novel intend to ride it out. The children scoff at their father's insistence that they must prepare. Despite being prepared for what's coming, as the reader, when the storm hits it takes your breath away. The slow build, the high tension, the choices and decisions, not choices or decisions at all, truly.
Salvage the Bones not only gives a realistic portrayal of life immediately following hurricane Katrina, but it also gives insight into the lives of people affected. Beyond that, into the mindset of poor people in America, and the unfairness of it all, of life.