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Jesmyn Ward's intense 'Salvage the Bones'

Jesmyn Ward, author of "Salvage the Bones" (Bloomsbury,

Jesmyn Ward, author of "Salvage the Bones" (Bloomsbury, September 2011). CREDIT: Tony Cook Credit: Tony Cook Photo/

SALVAGE THE BONES, by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury, 259 pp., $24.

 

If it had not caught the attention of a handful of important readers, Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones" would most likely have faded quietly into obscurity; many worthy books do. Now, however, this novel about a poor Mississippi family in the weeks leading up to Hurricane Katrina has a prominent place in bookstores and boasts the gold medallion that comes with winning the 2011 National Book Award.

"Salvage the Bones" is an intense book, with powerful, direct prose that dips into poetic metaphor. It's told by a teenage girl, Esch, whose late-summer thoughts turn to Greek myths and her neglectful lover, Manny. "I imagine this is the way Medea felt about Jason when she fell in love," she thinks. "That she looked at him and felt a fire eating up through her rib cage, turning her blood to boil, evaporating hotly out of every inch of her skin."

Although Esch has been sexually active since the age of 12, Manny is the first man she's fallen for. Her desire for a relationship with him is more aspirational than realistic -- he lives with a girlfriend -- but hopes, however tenuous, are the lifeline for Esch and her brothers.

The siblings have largely raised themselves since their mother died after giving birth to Junior, the youngest. After her death, their father took up a diminishing cycle of odd jobs, alcohol and anger. They live on several rural acres that belonged to their mother's family, which once profited by using part of it as an ad hoc dump.

Randall, the eldest, practices basketball with hopes that it might bring him to the attention of a scout and college. Esch longs for Manny. Skeetah, a year younger than Esch, thinks he'll be able to sell the puppies from his cherished fighting dog, China.

This probably would be the right place to mention that if you have a problem with dogfights, this might not be the book for you. Or girls having casual sex at age 12, for that matter. Yet the story is told with such immediacy and openness that it may keep judgments at bay. We are immersed in Esch's world, a world where there is little safety except what the siblings create for each other.

While Hurricane Katrina brews on the horizon of this book, it doesn't appear in these pages until halfway through. First, there are battles to be fought: a key basketball game for Randall, a threatening challenge for China. Again and again, Esch's thoughts return to the Medea myth. She's growing into her own kind of power, but she's not sure what it is, or should be.

Ward, 34, accepted the National Book Award, saying she wanted to write about poor, black rural Southerners in such a way that the greater culture would see their stories -- "our stories," she said -- as universal. In "Salvaging the Bones," she has done just that. Fortunately, the National Book Award judges were listening.

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