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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Salvage the Bones (A Book Review)

A story that combines aspects of "Juneau" "Catcher in the Rye" & "Push" in one tale of a pregnant teen, a fighting dog and Hurricane Katrina

Rating:  4.75/5.0 stars

Pros: Strong and gripping emotions, Interesting plot, and memorable characters, Detailed and realistic portrayal of rural poverty in a way that encourages sympathy, but not pity

Cons: Over-reliance on emotion might have weakened the plot

“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward is the story of a rural family preparing for Hurricane Katrina. That family consists of pregnant 14-year old girl (no one knows at the time), her brothers, and her sometimes present (and usually unemployed) father. Her mother has died in childbirth, leaving Eesch as the only girl in a world of dog fights, boys, and abject poverty.

Then again, “Salvage the Bones” is not your typical “teen pregnancy” story.

 “Salvage the Bones” is a story about a boy with a strong relationship with his dog, China, and their journey through puppies, dog fights, parvo, and love. China is a legend and Skeeter will do everything he can to make sure China and her puppies live up it, no matter what it takes.

Then again, “Salvage the Bones” is not your typical “boy and pet” story either.

I was referred to the book in a Twitter conversation with Cameron Conaway, a social justice advocate, poet,author, and mixed martial artist.

“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward was not what I expected given the title and the preview. I expected a heartfelt story about a rural family preparing to survive through Hurricane Katrina. What I read was one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching and detailed books I have ever read on rural poverty. Jesmyn Ward is a master at being able to provide tiny details about some minor thing in the character’s life and turn it into a poetic expression of the human expression. That expression is a tragic and brutal one, filled with dog fights, parental neglect, teen pregnancy, and cursing. It’s the kind of life you read about in the news covering a rural family living in poverty. Jesmyn enters that without apology and without being patronizing. This is simply the world Eesch and her family live in and they accept it for what is.

Jesmyn Ward also does an incredible job of displaying the fickle thoughts and emotions of a teenager in Eesch and Skeeter. Reading their dialogue (internal or external), readers get a chance to see their condition from the inside out. For example, Jesmyn is able to capture the cornucopia of feelings Eesch feels about her mother, her upcoming pregnancy, her relationship with boys, and her relationship with China. All of this comes out in all of its poetic and graphic detail like they do in real life.

Maintaining two simultaneous plots is strength of the book as well. Jesmyn is able to balance the story of Eesch’s conflicts about the nature of her upcoming motherhood with Skeeter’s journey with his dog. Both plots happen at the same time and both plots impact each other. 

“Salvage the Bones” is a great book, however, there are some things that might (and have) turned readers away from it. The first is the over-emphasis on emotion and tragedy. Although I liked this aspect of the book, the plot suffered a little because it was too focused on detail and emotion. That is most evident in the ending, which stopped rather than ended. After becoming so emotionally invested in the characters, the book didn't really end on a strong note. I wanted to know what would happen next. The second issue is the content itself. If you are not ready to confront the graphic reality of rural poverty and other aspects of our culture (like dogfights, teen pregnancy, etc.) then you probably are not ready for this book.