Jesmyn Ward’s second novel Salvage the Bones wins the 2011 National Book Award.
Here is the gist of the novel in the writer’s own words:
Salvage the Bones follows a family through the ten days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, stays with them through the storm, and leaves them during the immediate aftermath. Each chapter is a day. Even though the book contains a hurricane, it’s not only about that hurricane. It’s about a young girl, Esch, who grows up in a world of men, about her brother, Skeet, a lost boy in love with his pit bull, and about a family struggling to survive big loss and little loss. I wanted to write a book about a girl who grows up in a world of men, and after discovering her brother’s character in a writing exercise, I thought it would be good to follow these two characters through Hurricane Katrina, since I’d lived through it and wanted to write about the storm too.
According to The Paris Review the novel is unique in that it weaves together subject matters as disparate as Southern Hip Hop, Greek mythology, namely the saga of the much vilified anti-hero Medea, and Hurricane Katrina.
On the choice of Southern Rap as the novel’s epigraph, Ward says:
Biblical myth is as integral to the spirit of the South as the heat and humidity. The epigraphs acknowledge that history. Hip-hop, which is my generation’s blues, is important to the characters that I write about. They use hip-hop to understand the world through language.
Medea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch, too, because Esch understands her vulnerability, Medea’s tender heart, and responds to it.
The writer’s view of the Hurricane is intertwined with her view of the word “salvage” and what it connotes:
The word salvage is phonetically close to savage. At home, among the young, there is honor in that term. It says that come hell or high water, Katrina or oil spill, hunger or heat, you are strong, you are fierce, and you possess hope. When you stand on a beach after a hurricane, the asphalt ripped from the earth, gas stations and homes and grocery stores disappeared, oak trees uprooted, without any of the comforts of civilization—no electricity, no running water, no government safety net—and all you have are your hands, your feet, your head, and your resolve to fight, you do the only thing you can: you survive.