When Esch Batiste wanted winds of change to blow through the bare bones of her broken home, she did not expect them to come in the form of a devastating hurricane. But, as if the hurricane did not present enough of a challenge in and of itself, a much more debilitating threat laid ahead for the young girl; her pregnancy and her brother’s dog China sought to add more turmoil to the already bubbling pot of chaos. Throughout the course of the story, Salvage the Bones, author Jesmyn Ward portrays a story of love and loss for a teenage girl who barely knows herself yet. In the novel, many parallels arise between Esche, China, and Esch’s deceased mother. Through these parallels, Ward reveals themes of motherhood and violence, chaos and control, and poverty and survival. As the plot of the novel progresses, Esch’s family encounters obstacles that test their loyalty and perseverance to one another. Through characterization and symbolism, Jesmyn Ward produces a strong plot in Salvage the Bones that conveys a theme to reflect the tragedies and successes of life.
In order to fully understand the complexity of the novel, fully understanding the setting and its relationship to the plot becomes necessary. The story takes place in a small town in Lousiana under the name of Bois Sauvage (Ward). The fictional town in the novels acts as a representation of the many towns in Louisiana and the southern gulf states, ultimately affected by Hurricane Katrina. The setting plays a vital role in the plot development of the novel. Firstly, the setting shows the poverty Esch and the rest of the Batiste family face everyday. While the family struggles to find a way to make ends meet and live with the wrath of their alcoholic father, they must prepare to face a challenge much more daunting: surviving one of the most powerful storms to ever make landfall. Due to limited resources, and a broken home (literally and figuratively), the family must fight harder to prepare their tiny piece of land, their most prized possession, to withstand the wrath of the monstrous rains and winds. Despite their differences, they come together to protect the one possession they can all rely on: their home. This portrayal of the family provides an accurate representation of the many people affected by the 2005 storm (Dziak 1). Furthermore, the setting of the small town represents the people who suffered severe consequences of the hurricane but often become forgotten in textbooks.
Most often, people think New Orleans, Louisiana, suffered the harshest effects of the hurricane (Dziak 1). However, many common people residing in small towns, such as the one in Salvage the Bones, suffered the same, if not harsher, consequences. Esch and her family’s small piece of land provide a glimpse into the hundreds and thousands of people this book represents. One of the people this book serves as a representation of, is none other than the author Jesmyn Ward. Ward combines her own experiences with those of fiction to form a realistic plot and emotional connection with the reader. In order to understand why the author chose a harsh and somber setting, it is vital to understand the author herself.
Author Jesmyn Ward pulls memories and experiences from her personal life to incorporate into the themes, setting, and characters of her novel. Ward grew up in a town in Mississippi similar to the one of Bois Sauvage in her story. The town of DeLisle lies on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and was not only her childhood home but also where she currently resides (“Writing Mississippi”). She chose to move back to her hometown because “… I think that gives me a sense of myself that is hard for me to access when I’m not here. A way of understanding myself: who I am, and where I come from, and who I come from” (“Writing Mississippi”).
Although the town has a special place in the hearts of 40-year-old Ward and her family, the town has its own troublesome past. Much like the town of Bois Sauvage, the African American members of De Lisle have a tendency to suffer from poverty and alcoholism (“Writing Mississippi”). Within the Batiste household, many friends and family may stay in the house at any given time (Ward). As Ward grew up, her family faced many of these same struggles. In a four bedroom house on the outskirts of the already too small town of De Lisle, resided Ward and twelve other family members. Not only did the family have to fight the struggles of poverty and alcoholism, but they also had to fight for their equality in a place where racial differences presented obstacles (“Writing Mississippi”). When writing Salvage the Bones, Ward incorporates these life experiences. It remains necessary that the reader understand her troubled and somewhat somber past in order to understand the complexity of the characters and themes presented, and how they relate back to the author herself. One of the most vital influences for the plot of the story is the occurrence of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina presents many challenges and complicates Esch’s life, so a full understanding of the beastly storm becomes necessary.
Pregnancy, in general, presents a challenge for anyone; teen pregnancy presents an even higher stakes challenge. Add a hurricane into the equation, and it becomes a recipe for disaster. In Salvage the Bones this exact culmination of events plagues the Batiste family, specifically Esch. Hurricane Katrina creates a conflict for the Batiste family (Ward). The storm began in the Bahamas as a tropical depression on August 23, 2005, and by the time it reached land on August 29, 2005, it was deemed a Category Five hurricane. Although the hurricane wreaked havoc across the Gulf states, Louisiana received the worst damage. Windspeeds reached up to 125 miles per hour, and in some places caused extreme flooding.
Houses became unhinged from their once-sturdy foundations and began to float like a piece of debris in the rushing flood waters. Nearly 1,600 people died during the tragic storm, but those lucky enough to survive faced many hardships of their own in the following months (Dziak 2). Thousands of people suffered immensely, from washed away homes to lack of food and water, and some had to grieve losses of loved ones while trying to rebuild their lives. Due to the debris found in the flood waters, people became infected with the dirty water and the water became unsuitable for drinking or cleaning. The final cost of rebuilding and cleaning up the aftermath totaled up to approximately $100 billion (Dziak 3). In Salvage the Bones, Ward uses many symbols to convey themes and build character relationships. One of the major symbols within the novel is the hurricane itself. However, many other symbols present themselves throughout the plot of the novel.
In the novel, the Batiste family residence lies on a piece of land known as “the Pit.” The Pit contains trees and acres of land by the woods. The kids often ran through the woods and looked at a house over the hill. A white couple lived in the house, and the children stole from their barn to get the dog, China, food. In one adventure to obtain food for China, Esch and Randall run through the woods. After learning of her pregnancy, Esch decides to risk it all and help her brother (Ward). The reader can see the loyalty to her family young Esch possesses when she says, “Vines catch my arms, my head; we tear through until we break out into the clearing before the fence, the field, the barn, the house, and I drop to my knees, and Randall leans back as if he would fall, both of us breathing hard, looking wet and newly born” (Ward 207). This adventure symbolizes the longing for adventure and willingness to help her family, as well as foreshadows the pregnancy taking place.
When Esch refers to herself and Randall as newly born, she subconsciously foreshadows her pregnancy to the reader. Because of her uneasy feelings toward the baby’s father, Manny, and her own father, she hides her pregnancy for as long as possible. However, the moment her secret becomes apparent to both of these men in her life, she realizes she must remain strong. Her strength not only empowers her to protect her baby but also protect the one constant in her life: the “Pit”. As she struggles to survive the pregnancy and a hurricane, she still finds a way to care about her own family and her brother’s dog, China. This symbolizes her underlying worry, yet excitement, about the new baby. The worry of the incoming hurricane represents the “storm” brewing internally, physically and mentally.
Another important symbol within the pages of the novel is Hurricane Katrina. When Esch’s youngest brother Junior came into the world, her mother passed during his birth. After her passing, the Batiste father became an alcoholic and tried to raise his family while working with little to no money (Ward). The hurricane symbolizes the destruction of the family whenever the mother passed away. By allowing the hurricane to swallow not only the family’s earthly possessions but also confiscating the father’s sobriety and sanity, Ward symbolizes the effect the mother’s death had on the household. The house in which she died giving birth to Junior, becomes the place where their father’s hard work and their sense of home will die as well (Guth). The overall destruction of the home represents the internal destruction the mother caused. Although the hurricane presents itself as an important symbol, China, Skeetah’s dog, plays a significant role in the development of the plot as well.
While most symbols appear as inanimate objects, one significant symbol is Skeetah’s dog, China. China not only provides an important symbol, but she also serves as an important parallel to convey themes of motherhood and violence. China symbolizes motherhood and Esch’s inner conflict about becoming a mother herself. The story opens up by showing a gory scene of China giving birth to puppies. Shortly after, the reader finds out that Esch will become a mother herself (Ward). Throughout the story, China and Esch’s lives often reflect one another. In addition to the parallelism between China and Esch, the Batiste mother is mentioned not only posthumously, but also in flashbacks. The reader gets an understanding of the Batiste children’s upbringing and how hard the loss of their mother hit them. Esch often finds herself worrying about China’s pregnancy because it acts as a reflection of her own pregnancy. She finds comfort in seeing China as a mother because the thought of her own mother hurts her greatly. China symbolizes motherhood, as well as the loss of a motherly figure. Since Esch cannot confide in her father, she must express her inner feelings about her pregnancy through her thoughts on China’s motherhood experience (Clark). The symbols help to convey themes presented in the novel, but the analyzation of characters also provides important information to help one understand all the themes presented.
Along with prominent symbolism, the author uses bold characters to help convey the themes in the novel. In Salvage the Bones, the story centers around the Batiste family. Its members include Skeetah, Esch, Randall, Junior, and Daddy (Ward). Each character possesses individual characteristics that make them vital to the plot. Skeetah has a dog named China, who breeds puppies and fights other dogs for money. Skeetah’s foe, Manny, has his own dog that breeds with China. A quarrel breaks out amongst them, and they decide to fight the dogs for ownership of the puppies. The reason Skeetah places so much time and effort into protecting China and her babies, Due to the devastating loss of his mother at a young age, Skeetah focuses ample time and effort into protecting China and her babies. He knows the terrible burden of losing a mother, and he also finds comfort in seeing China act like a mother. While Skeetah occupies himself with China, Esch becomes pregnant with Manny’s baby. Esch serves not only as the lone female character, but she also represents motherhood.
After the loss of their mother, the kids had no femininity in their lives, so Esch filled that void. With her pregnancy, she must tackle the role of being a single mother in the midst of a hurricane, with no mother to turn to for guidance. China serves as Esch’s only guide on how to mother and maintain a balance between motherhood and violence. Esch says “…it is the way that all girls who only know one boy move. Centered as if the love that boy feels for them anchors them deep as a tree’s roots, holds them still as the oaks, which don’t uproot in hurricane wind. Love as certainty” (Ward 119). During this time, she believes that even a hurricane will not seperate her and Manny, but this quickly changes once her pregnancy is revealed. The fact that Manny being the baby’s father adds further turmoil to the story due to the conflict between him and Skeetah. The oldest sibling, Randall, has a natural athletic ability for basketball. However, due to his family’s poverty and lack of parental presence, he often becomes deprived of the opportunity to show off his ability. Because of this, he becomes angered when the conflict between Manny and Skeetah interrupts his one chance at a scholarship.
As the oldest brother, Randall acts as the peacekeeper and serves as the father figure whenever Daddy starts to drink. Randall protects his own family, as well as China. Whenever Esch reveals her pregnancy to him, he comforts her and protects her more than before. The youngest sibling, Junior, plays a significant role because their mother gave birth to him minutes before she died. Junior serves as a constant reminder that their mother passed. He also matures much faster than the other kids, because he has been exposed to poverty and death much sooner than normal children his age. The final member of the Batiste family is Daddy. Daddy suffers the most pain, physically and mentally, throughout the novel. He turns to alcohol to cope with the loss of his wife. He gets his left hand cut off in an accident while preparing for the hurricane (Ward). Although the pain tortures him, the hand that had his wedding ring now lies in pieces. The ring served as one of the few remaining connections he had to his wife. The interactions between these characters portray themes of motherhood, violence, poverty, and survival.
When writing Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward produced a strong plot by using characterization and symbolism to reflect the tragedies and successes of life. Ward not only utilizes strong symbolism to create themes and parallels within the story, but she also utilizes her past by developing strong characters and referencing a severely tragic event in history. Without an equal combination of all aspects, the plot in Salvage the Bones would lack greatly. The themes of motherhood, violence, poverty, and survival can relate to not just one demographic, but to all people who experience hardships within their life. Jesmyn Ward’s ability to relate to the reader allows her to convey themes that can teach everyone how to persevere through tough times, and love each other through the good times.