Imagine being a poor, motherless girl in rural Mississippi. Now, imagine being a poor, motherless 14 year-old pregnant girl in rural Mississippi and Hurricane Katrina is days from landfall. This is Esch, the protagonist of Jesmyn Ward’s award-winning novel Salvage the Bones.

This young mother-to-be lost her own mother five years ago after a complication during delivering her final child. Esch is the mother of the household to her three brothers. Randall aspires to be a basketball player, Skeetah’s sole focus is his prize-winning pit bull China, and Junior is a typical curious and rambunctious preschooler. The patriarch, known only as Daddy, is working frantically to prepare for the rapidly advancing Katrina and to protect his family despite their extremely limited resources.

With that brief introduction, Esch walks us through an eventful eleven days prior to Katrina’s landfall, the day that changed their lives forever, and one day after, offering a brief glimpse into what might become after such a horrific event. The Batiste family is preoccupied. Daddy with the storm, Randall with the basketball scouts, Skeetah with the dying litter his dog just birthed and Esch with her growing belly and how she will tell Manny. How she will tell her family.

Ward has created a complex and very real picture of poor, rural Mississippi life and the sacrifices families must make when disaster hits. Her words are rich, although a bit overwritten at times. She makes up for it with fully developed and engaging characters that sometimes make you shake your head, but that mostly you empathize for. Ward’s ability to make Katrina a character in this novel, was exceptional. The storm snuck in early on, whistling through trees, rustling through thorn-filled blueberry bushes, covering the sky in a gray haze and building a momentum that brought the story to a heart-stopping and devastating climax.

I recently read a column by magazine editor Greg Zimmerman where he wrote:

“Nothing is more real than fiction. Nothing helps us make sense of the real world more than fiction. Nothing instills in us empathy for others like fiction.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And, that’s why I would encourage you to read Salvage the Bones. It’s gritty and brutal and, at times, hard to read; but it’s important. Ward’s fictional Batiste family could be any poor, struggling family ravaged by a natural disaster that doesn’t have the luxury of leaving before landfall. They don’t have the luxury of choice. The only thing they can do is stay and hold onto each other, hoping for the best.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 273
Genre: Fiction