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Literature / Salvage the Bones

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Salvage the Bones is a 2011 novel by Jesmyn Ward. Its story follows teenager Esch Batiste in the fictional Mississippian town of Bois Sauvage as she and her family prepare for Hurricane Katrina as it grows in the Gulf of Mexico. Esch's mother died giving birth to her youngest brother, leaving Esch as the only woman in her family. Esch's father is a hard drinker, largely absent, and he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her brothers—Skeetah, Randall, and Junior—are left to take care of the home themselves. While they prepare supplies and fortify their home, Esch deals with her pregnancy by Randall's friend Manny.


Salvage the Bones provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Esch's dad, to the point that he makes himself deathly sick by taking his medication with beer. After Hurricane Katrina comes through and wrecks the town, Esch and others rifle through a demolished liquor store just to find him whatever he can drink.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The final passages of the novel switch to future tense, leaving it ambiguous as to whether China truly does return home alive, or if it is merely Esch's hope.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's not made clear whether or not Manny intentionally had Skeetah poison China or not.
  • Bastard Boyfriend: Manny, to the extreme. When he's not using Esch for sex, he never gives her so much as a glance. When he realizes Esch is pregnant, immediately abandons her and later hurls verbal abuse at her when she confronts him.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Bois Sauvage and the surrounding area is completely ravaged by Katrina—including the Batiste's homes. Manny leaves Esch, refusing to acknowledge himself as her baby's father. China's puppies drown in the flood and China herself has disappeared. On the upside, Esch realizes that she and her baby will be cared for and protected. The experience of the flood has possibly made her father open his eyes and start paying attention to his family again. It's also possible that China comes back alive.
  • Black and Nerdy: Esch is privately profound, philosophical, and a poetic thinker. She's a Greek mythology buff to boot.
  • Bookends: The novel opens with China giving birth to her puppies with Skeetah's help, all while a storm rages outside. The novel ends (possibly) in the aftermath of Katrina, the puppies drowned but China returning home to Skeetah.
  • Canine Companion: Skeetah's whole world revolves around China. He works more just to afford to buy her the absolute best dog food, he often sleeps in the shed with her, and Esch observes that while China is birthing her puppies, Skeetah acts like the proud father. Skeetah's adoration for his beloved pitbull runs so deep that he ventures out into the hurricane-ravaged Bois Sauvage just to try and find her.
  • Death by Childbirth: Esch's mom died from complications giving birth to Junior. Esch remembers it as her mother getting into the car to go to the hospital and never coming back. Skeetah recalls that their mother had some parting goodbyes—which Esch thinks he's misremembering.
  • Deep South: The fictional Bois Sauvage is in poor, rural Mississippi. The land is described as either dry patches of dust or muggy swamplands. Bois Sauvage itself is said to be all but segregated—there is a place where the "white folks" live specifically.
  • Empathic Environment: Hurricane Katrina builds throughout the story as Esch silently struggles with her Teen Pregnancy and steadily-crumbling (if not already nonexistent) relationship with Manny. Right before it hits, Manny leaves her for good, and Esch finally breaks.
  • Foregone Conclusion: As a coastal town in Mississippi, the reader knows from the get-go that Bois Sauvage will not be okay when Hurricane Katrina hits.
  • Hell Is That Noise: Katrina's winds are described as sounding like trains. It's the same way Esch's mother described the winds of Hurricane Camille.
  • Incest Subtext: Esch and Skeetah have the closest relationship out of anyone in the novel. He's the one stepping into help raise her child, a child she plans to name after him should it be a boy. Most blatantly, however, is the fact that Esch repeatedly admires and compares herself to the mythological figure Medea. At the end of the novel, it's revealed that Skeetah's real name is Jason.
  • Maybe Ever After: Esch remains distantly aware of Big Henry's feelings for her throughout the novel. At the end, after Big Henry assures her that he'll always be there for her, Esch admits to herself that she would have felt much safer in the flooding house had he been there, possibly implying a romantic future for the two.
  • Missing Mom: She's dead, making Esch the only girl in her family and the whole novel. Throughout the novel, Esch recalls tender memories of her mother and how strong the family was when she was still alive. Even when the characters aren't talking about her, it's clear that her death has left a gaping hole in the family.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Understandably, since Esch is unmarried and only fourteen, she's none too excited about coming clean to her family. Especially not with a massive hurricane about to make landfall. The family finds out while they are escaping their flooded house and they see her belly.
  • Questionable Consent: Esch confesses in her narration that she agrees to her numerous sexual encounters because it's easier to say yes than to resist. The first time she had sex, she was twelve and didn't even understand what was really happening.
  • Rage-Breaking Point: After Manny, post-rape, denies fathering her child and accuses her of sleeping around, Esch finally breaks down in heartbreak, realizing that Manny never loved her the way she did him.
  • Southern Gothic: Bois Sauvage, "wild wood" in French, is haunted: by hurricanes, by nature, by the dead. Ward's voluptuous writing helps to create the visceral creepiness of gothicism.
  • A Storm Is Coming: While Esch struggles with a secret pregnancy, Skeetah fusses over China, and Randall prepares for his future-defining basketball game, Hurricane Katrina brews stronger and stronger on the coast.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Esch is only fourteen when she becomes pregnant by Manny.