In Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, the Batiste family is lurching through life. Ever since the children’s mother died from complications in childbirth, the family shares a home but they’re almost more like roommates. The father brings in money to keep everyone fed, but feels absent. Randall is trying to get a scholarship to basketball camp. Skeetah is dedicated to his fighting pitbull and her new puppies. Junior, the youngest, spends most of his time getting shouted at for being in the way. Esch, the narrator of Salvage the Bones, a masterwork by Jesmyn Ward, has sex with almost any teenaged boy who asks. They all need something—or someone—but I don’t think any of them can say what will bring them real, lasting happiness. But Salvage the Bones is not about happiness so much as it is a meditation on the dark side of being a mother.
The book opens with Skeetah’s dog, China, giving birth to puppies. Esch is not shy about what she sees as each puppy emerges from China. Skeetah also pays close attention to the birthing. Not only is he worried about the health of his best (and only) fighting dog, there’s also the fear that this first time mother will eat her young. Shortly after the puppies’ birth, Esch realizes that she’s pregnant. This is not great news for a teenager living a life on the margins. Ordinarily, a teenaged mother would be worried about money, her health, her child’s health, her relationship with the child’s father, continuing school, and on and on and on. Instead, Esch’s thoughts constantly turn to the volatile China and a story she just read in her assigned book of Greek mythology: the terrifying tale of Medea. These psychic tensions are compounded by news of the immanent arrival of Hurricane Katrina.
Mothers are everywhere in Salvage the Bones, but they’re not the mothers we usually see in fiction. The mothers in this book are more elemental. Esch’s own mother has been gone so long that Esch can only remember her as a force within the Batiste home that kept every thing under control. Without her, everyone scattered as much as they could while still sharing a home. Esch has, consequently, never known a real, everyday mother. Mothers are mythic figures to Esch. China and Medea are savage mothers. They give until they snap, then they take back what they’ve given. The mothers we’re used to in literature a much more giving, sometimes idealized. The ones who are villains are always given thorough backstories to explain their actions. The mothers in Esch’s life are mysterious, powerful beings with unpredictable behavior. They need to be watched and appeased, or simply survived.
Though she doesn’t say it outright, I think Esch worries that she might fail as a mother because she’s never had a good role model. She just doesn’t know how to mother. I think it bodes well for Esch that she worries about this. If she didn’t care about being a mother, she wouldn’t be watching every mother that comes into her orbit so closely, studying them. It’s also a good sign for Esch that, in the scant week and a half covered in Salvage the Bones, finds a well of inner strength to draw from after a deep emotional disappointment. Her breakthrough comes when she learns who deserves her loyalty and who is truly loyal to her.
The ending of Salvage the Bones floored me. Ward’s writing is brilliant throughout the book, but the writing in the last chapter, after the storm hits, absolutely floored me. (This book absolutely deserves every bit of praise written about it.) Esch compares Katrina to a mother from Greek myth that acts according to its own will. It destroys but leaves just enough behind for the survivors to salvage. The book ends on a note of grim determination that feels just as mythic as Esch’s school reading. The Batiste’s have been battered. They have lost a lot. But they’re still alive. Katrina took away so many remnants of the past that the family has no choice but the unite and move on with the business of living.