When I set out to write about Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones, I meant to speak about several aspects that have moved me and driven me to deep thought. I became so wrapped up in talking about Skeetah’s relationship with his white pit bull, China, however, that I never ventured beyond that thread. There is one more theme that I simply can’t let go unremarked, so I’m adding this coda to my initial entry about the book. Very early in the story, Esch is talking about her efforts to appear sexy to a boy she fancies, Manny. She tells us: “I’d let boys have it [her “girly heart”] because they wanted it, amd not because I wanted to give it. I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne. I was beloved…. I was bold as a Greek….” Though I puzzled over this unprepared for and unexplained reference to classical Greek women, I didn’t pay much attention until later Ward has Esch remind us of her tendency to identify with such characters out of mythology. She says “I could be Eurydice walking through the underworld to dissolve, unseen.” Then about midway into the story, Esch begins to limit her Greek identifications to Medea the character who killed her own brother. This story, occurring in the middle of her mythology text that she has vowed to read in its entirety, fascinates Esch, and Medea will come to her psychological aid several times as the hurricane strengthens and hits her family and community hard, and she struggles to figure out how to survive. She goes on to recount the two versions of how Medea’s brother dies–one has her deliver her brother to Jason who kills him while Medea watches; the other has Medea herself do the deed: “she chops him into bits….and throws each part overboard so that her father, who is chasing them, slows down to pick up each part of his son.” Esch reads this account repeatedly in order to get away “from the smell of Manny still on me a night and morning” after Manny has deserted her when he learns she’s pregnant.
A few scenes later, when Manny shows up, Esch attacks him yelling “I loved you!” followed by her immediate retreat into Greek mythology: “This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting.” And then a few more moments into this scene in which Esch becomes like Hurricane Katrina as well as her Greek alter ego, she muses: “When Jason betrayed Medea to exile so he could marry another woman, she killed his bride, the bride’s father, and last her own children, and then flew away into the wind on dragons. She shrieked; Jason heard.”
Ward’s final joining of her central female character to the powerful woman of Greek myth comes as the water from Katrina moves inexorably closer to Esch and her family in their vulnerable house. Determined to believe they can weather the storm, Esch is drifting off to sleep, reading her book: “In ancient Greece, for all her heroes, for Medea and her mutilated brother and her devastated father, water meant death. In the bathroom on the toilet, I heard the clanking of metal against metal outside, some broken machine tilting like a sinking headstone against another, and I knew it was the wind pushing a heavy rain.” On their last day to be able to be safe inside their house, Esch again is “trying to read by the oil lamp, but the sound of the words are not coming together over the sound of the wind and the rain relentlessly bearing down on the house; they are fragments. Jason has remarried, and Medea is wailing. An exile, oh God, oh God, alone. And then By death, oh, by death, shall the conflict be decided. Life’s little day ended. I shut the book, don’t even mark my place, and sit on it.” Finally, art and the old Greek story cannot help Esch and her family, so there are no more moments in which she relies on comparing herself to Medea. Something stronger has attacked them all–the force and aftermath of Katrina–and surely Esch’s book, like Sheetah’s beloved dog, is washed away to join all the other debris, pieces of human life lost.
Not content to let the Medea parallels go completely, however, Ward has Esch make a final comparison, though this time not of her to the Greek murdering mother/wife. She imagines an amazing connection between Medea and Katrina: “Her [Katrina’s} chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She [Katrina] was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone, but let us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes…. She [Katrina] left us to learn to crawl. She [Katrina]left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.” So Ward has tied this contemporary black family to one of Greek tragedy’s grimmest episodes. She has equated the hurricane named for a woman to the maddened Greek woman who cannot stop herself from exacting mortal revenge on those who have ignored and betrayed her. And the young Esch has the imagination to see this conflation and use the past to help her make minimal sense out of her present.