My husband and I recently attended a dinner at Montgomery Bell Academy here in Nashville featuring celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman, who has opened the restaurant Adele’s (named for his mother) in the Gulch to rave reviews.
Waxman seemed like someone who enjoyed his food and an audience as he stood before us in the MBA dining hall, beginning his cooking demonstration. Chatting all the while about his mother, his childhood and his new restaurant, he showed us how to put a squirming lobster to sleep: you hold it upside down. The lobster’s legs gently relaxed and the audience couldn’t help but smile. After lulling the lobster to sleep, Chef Waxman lay it on his cutting board and cut it cleanly in two – WHAM – with gusto and what seemed to be no small amount of pleasure. A collective gasp – eyes averted a moment too late; if Waxman wanted to shock, he achieved his goal.
At first, it seemed to me that Jesmyn Ward also aimed to shock and horrify in Salvage the Bones, Vanderbilt’s All-School read for freshmen this year and winner of the National Book Award in 2012. Ward tells the story of an impoverished black family on the gulf coast of Mississippi in the days leading up Hurricane Katrina and during the storm itself. By the second page, the protagonist’s mother has been “dragged from the bed to [her husband’s] truck, trailing her blood, and we never saw her again.” The family she leaves behind is 17 or 18-year-old Randall, a talented athlete; second son Skeet, devoted beyond measure to his pit bull, China; the protagonist, Esch, a pregnant 10th grader, and 7-year-old Junior, whose birth caused his mother’s death. Their father is an alcoholic, and the family barely gets by on his watch.
Early chapters of the book include graphic descriptions of Esch’s promiscuity, the family’s poverty (where they live, by the “trash-strewn, hardscrabble Pit,” everything is “starving, fighting, struggling”), and China giving birth to puppies, in bloody detail. When I started the book several years ago, I put it down after a few chapters. It seemed a parade of horribles – all darkness and no light.
Revisiting it this fall on the recommendation of my friend Karlen Garrard, I kept reading. I’m not sure I’ve ever changed my mind so radically about a book. Poverty in rural Mississippi is not pretty, and Ward doesn’t let it go down easy for the reader. With equal courage and conviction, though, she shows the ferocity of the love that can bind a family together after the family’s linchpin – a mother’s love and labor – is gone. Ward also shows the beauty of the love that can exist between a boy and his dog:
Skeetah rubs China from her shoulders to her neck, up along her razor jaw, and holds her face, which goes wrinkly with the skin smashed forward. It looks like he is pulling her to him for a kiss. She squints…The sun shines, blazes like fire, funnels down in the gaps between the trees, and lights up Skeetah and China so that they glow, each kneeling before the other, eyes together.
Salvage the Bones ultimately bears witness to the best of what is within us, not the worst.
If you can do all that as an author while riffing on a Greek myth – wow. Ward deftly interweaves the tragedy of Jason and Medea into Esch’s story. Medea, you may recall, falls desperately in love with Jason and helps him on his Quest for the Golden Fleece, killing her own brother in the process. Jason marries then subsequently abandons her, and in mad grief and retribution, she kills their children. Esch likes to find herself in the pages of her mythology textbook, and often thinks about how her own life is like Medea’s. Esch’s triumph is to make choices that lead her to a place of hope rather than horror.
Salvage the Bones puts me in mind of a column in the The New York Times Book Review a few Sundays ago. After the publication of Leslie Jamison’s first novel, The Gin Closet, Jamison received an angry letter from a woman who said that the novel took her to a “horrible place. Back to drinking and taking drugs.” Jamison reflects:
I realize I’d come to believe that novels full of pain would always offer consolation, would always make people feel less alone in whatever pain their own lives already held – because it had always worked like that for me. But I began to see that it could also work another way: there could be a yearning for hope, for an alternative, for something more positive … and the failure to provide that alternative could feel like betrayal, like permission to destroy, like a promise of what might never change.
Ward’s book does not feel like permission to destroy. It feels like permission to hope.