Imagine a movie camera, one that stays focused on a poor family in coastal Mississippi, Claude Batiste and his four children—Randall, Skeetah, Junior and their sister Esch—in late August of 2005.
Now imagine that the camera follows them everywhere for twelve days, that it never looks away.
It records the poverty and the daily squalor in stark black and white, documenting each scene with gritty realism. The camera finds the youngest child eating uncooked ramen noodles, and captures the father, shambling home drunk, as he tries to pick a fight with his older sons.
It zooms in when the family pit bull gives birth in a filthy shed, and it follows the pregnant 15-year-old daughter into the single bathroom each morning as she throws up, while her brothers bang on the door to get in.
It will be running even when Hurricane Katrina hits.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury, $24, 272 pages) is the implacable lens that captures in grainy, dramatic close-ups a family’s hopes tied up in the narrowest of futures: A basketball scholarship. The price a litter of prize fighting dogs might bring. The money to be made after a hurricane “by a man with a dump truck.” A young girl’s dreams of becoming a goddess in the eyes of a boy who never looks at her.
Like her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds (2009), Ward’s second takes place in the fictional Bois Sauvage, based on the author’s hometown of Delisle, Mississippi. At the center of both books is the day-to-day struggle to escape the negative effects of a blighted environment: drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy and crime.
As the title suggests, the landscape the Batistes inhabit is stripped down to almost nothing but what they can salvage. Back seats of junked cars and mattresses litter their yard. Their “TV that works” sits on top of a “TV that doesn’t work.” The kids gather chicken eggs from hens that have gone wild. “The Pit,” as they call home, resembles the place where locals stage dogfights: a dirt clearing in the woods where “everything…is starving, fighting, struggling.”
Since losing his beloved wife in childbirth seven years before, Claude’s combined anger and alcoholism has terrified and alienated his kids, throwing them into the role of each other’s caretakers. But as the new storm strengthens in the Gulf, their father sets aside his drinking to lay in hurricane supplies and board up the house.
Meanwhile, too young to remember the last deadly storm, his kids laugh off their father’s urgent warnings. “There’s always a hurricane coming or leaving here,” says Esch. “Most don’t even hit us head-on anymore; most turn right to Florida or take a left for Texas, brush past and glance off like a shirtsleeve.”
Though much of the plot centers on her brother Skeetah and his prize pit bull, China, and her puppies, it’s through Esch’s eyes that we see the events of the story, including a brutal dogfight and Skeetah’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep his dogs alive.
Esch’s summer reading—Edith Hamilton’s classic Mythology—becomes a powerful filter, transforming life in the Pit into a place inhabited by “trickster nymphs [and] ruthless goddesses,” shot through with the rays of myth and magic, where people dissolve into foliage, become one with trees and animals, shine like planets.
In the love story of Medea and Jason, Esch finds a new self, someone other than the lowly human girl used for sex by her brothers’ friends since she was 12. Eventually, even her doomed relationship with her baby-daddy takes on mythic significance, offering a chance to rise above and sustain herself in the all-male world she lives in.
The figurative language Ward employs suffers from overkill at times; overrich metaphors stall the narrative and undermine the strong characterization, as when Esch describes her father’s bandaged hand as “a webworm moth nest wound tight in a pecan tree, a yarn of larvae eating at the ripe green leaves beneath to burst forth in black-winged fury in the throat-closing heat of fall.”
Conversely, it’s the author’s unadorned prose that often conveys the most vivid effects:
Through the crack in the living room window, the morning is dark gray and opaque as dirty dishwater. The rain clatters on the rusted tin roof. And the wind, which yesterday only made itself known by sight, sighs and says, Hello. I lay here in the dark, pull my thin sheet up to my neck, stare at the ceiling, and do not answer.
Both contribute, however, to the Circean spell Ward casts over the “the few dirt-scratched yards and thin-siding houses and trailers” of Bois Sauvage. By the time the storm hits and the water rises, we’re in a more universal place, where reality and myth meet, creating a timeless tale of a family that regains its humanity in the face of incalculable loss.
(An edited version of this review ran in the Nov. 13 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)