The words and sentences and paragraphs in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011) gather like pollen on a car hood; slowly, but surely, coating readers in a golden fleece of Southern mythology. The beauty and power of these particles is how they gravitate towards the body and spirit of Esch, whose knack for seeing and surviving in the world of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi walks in the literary footsteps of Scout Finch and Huck Finn and Claudia MacTeer.
Still, even though these other characters made it through the fire, Esch’s journey always feels so much more flirtatious with apocalyptic forces, as if by not already being canonized she is in even more jeopardy than her iconic predecessors. And then there is the hurricane.
As she reads Greek myths, watches one brother play basketball and another raise dogs for fighting, little Esch’s whole world appears ready to topple into the hollowed Pit below her family’s homestead. And then there is the hurricane.
A contemporary peer of Esch’s would be Karen Russell’s Ava Bigtree, from Swamplandia! (2011). Both are the daughters of deceased mothers. Both girls live incredibly lonely lives. These are the girls clinging to every scrap and thread of a bare childhood, because, to them, that childhood is the world entire. They have a friend in Hushpuppy from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Except all three girls live such intimately isolated lives that they could never know of the other, of anything else other than what they know. And, in this, they are always at the center.
And then there is the hurricane.
|Image from The New York Times|
This new wave of Southern girl protagonists is so miraculous because of how each girl is defined through movement. Hushpuppy dances and dashes. Ava wrestles. And, in the case of Esch, she swims, runs, and, unfortunately, has unprotected sex with multiple partners.
For much of the book, her brothers’ friends view her much as they do the dog China. They see her for her sex, for her ability to breed, and yet they do not recognize her fighting spirit—her power. When she first becomes pregnant, the mystery gathers as a burden inside her. And then there is a hurricane.
Esch’s pregnancy runs in parallel with hurricane season. The storms gather and disperse and gather again. Weather reports come and go. The life inside her does not. Eventually, she cannot hide it, and the storm comes. Yet this storm is an actual storm, rather than a metaphorical judgment of her youthful missteps. The Gulf Coast is left in ruins. She is not. And, in the midst of post-apocalyptic debris and nothingness, the burden buried inside of Esch's body lightens with hope.
At the novel's end, the characters gather round a fire, waiting for a runaway dog to return, waiting for a dead mother to rise up, beside a fire they wait. And there, beside them, is Esch, a soon to be mother, at the center of the world entire. And there was life.
Bryan Harvey tweets, mostly about basketball and nonsense, @LawnChairBoys.