I’m definitely a cat person when we are dividing the world into cat people or dog people. So when I began Jesmyn Ward’s 2010 novel, Salvage the Bones, I was not immediately drawn in. The opening scene depicts a female pit bull named China as she gives birth. I’m being told this by Esch, the sister of Sheetah who at sixteen is the owner and adorer of China. Esch tells a vivid story of how China as a pup stole everyone’s shoes, hid them, and then eventually took them outside where she put them in “shallow ditches under the house.” The opening paragraph ends with this: “Now China is giving like she once took away, bestowing where she once stole. She is birthing puppies.” As Esch unfolds her story about Skeetah and his dog, Ward magically overcomes my inherent preference for cats and by the end of the first chapter I am wanting to read about how the puppies fare.
Knowing what I now know about Ward’s own childhood experience with a pit bull, I’m amazed that she is able to tell of the elemental love and loyalty that exists between Skeetah and China. Here’s a brief description of her terrifying encounter: “When I was six, a pit bull tried to rip out my throat. I was walking down my parents’ oystershell driveway when the dog attacked me, probably because another dog, brown and shaggy in my memory was nearby and in heat. My attacker was white, muscled, wide across the chest, and tall; brandishing his weapon of a mouth, he blocked my path and sidled close to me. He was so still, and his back bumped my waist. ‘Move,’ I told him. ‘Get.’ Instead, he growled and jumped, and I fell beneath him. His growl rose to a pulsing grind. He sliced my scalp. My ear. My back. I curled in on myself, collapsed the target, and fought him. Beat his ribs with my fists. Kicked his soft underbelly. I screamed so loudly that my aunt ran down the street with a broom and beat him off of me, and then she walked me home. I wailed, covered in blood. On the way to the hospital, my mother put my head in her lap. I don’t remember crying in the car. I was in shock.”
As this story develops, I see Skeetah take China to a well-known clearing in the woods where a group of black men fight their dogs. Ward spares no graphic details of these brutal contests but she also presents them with no judgment. I’m simply to understand that this activity is a way for men undervalued by the larger world in which they try to function to step away from white prejudice and feel like humans with agency, even if it is not they themselves exercising that self-determination. I’m struck by the fact that these fights are always called and a winner declared by common consent before any animal is killed. And, even though some of Skeetah’s family feel he is fighting China too soon after her first delivery of puppies, the dog throws herself into the fray and comes away the winner because she senses how important it is to her owner that they both can hold their heads up high as they leave the arena.
This novel won the National Book Award in 2011, bringing Ward to the attention of lots of readers. As is often the case, I came to her rather late but once her language began to work its magic on my imagination, I find myself unable to let go of the sheer energy and force of her prose. Ward is 41 years old and is emerging as one of this country’s finest black authors, often echoing both themes and styles of her giant predecessor, Toni Morrison. Both authors care fiercely about finding exactly the right word/phrase/figure of speech in which to implant her seering analysis of racism in America. Both authors work to create complex characters who act both nobly and badly, who struggle with internal demons even as they maneuver their way through the minefields thrown onto their paths by white prejudice, white fear, and a system rigged against them at most every turn. Ward was a born in DeLisle, Mississippi, a census-designated part of Gulfport-Biloxi on the Mississippi gulf. Ward continues to live in the house where she was born, saying to friends who ask why she wants to live in such a small town, “It’s home.” She may live modestly, but her awards are mounting up as she continues to publish. She has even been given a MacArthur “genius grant” in recognition of all she has already done to progress American letters into fresh corners of this country’s life as it is lived every day by black people with no glitter but lots of persistence and heart.
Perhaps the first thing that impressed me about Ward’s style is her heavy reliance on similes and metaphors to carry her ideas and to force us deeper and deeper into her created worlds. With this I started out keeping a list of particularly striking figures of speech–something I routinely do when I’m reading someone whose language delights me. By about page 50, however, I realized I was writing down almost every page as having one such trope, so I just decided all I needed to do was open the book at random, read a few sentences, and I’d find a gem. Here’s just a tiny sampling to show how Ward chooses to make abstractions tangible: “The terrible truth of what I am flares like dry fall fire in my stomach, eating all the fallen pine needles” or “he wipes away the droplets of blood that have gathered on my legs like summer gnats” or “We were a pile of wet, cold branches.” Ward’s prose stops me with these kinds of comparisons until I am emotionally exhausted but hungry to stumble upon the next one.
The human interactions among Esch and her family take place under the shadow of news from their radio about a possible hurricane. No one in their community is worried, however, since “Most don’t even hit us head-on anymore; most turn right to Florida or take a left for Texas.” The cruel irony hovers over me as I keep reading, since I know what the characters do not. By the middle of the novel, this putatively harmless storm has worsened, causing Esch’s Daddy to start dismantling their chicken coop to use the lumber to board up their own windows. Ward brings home just how serious things are becoming by saying “The storm, it has a name now. Like the worst, she’s a woman. Katrina.” Since Ward’s own family was affected by the storm and its ensuing flooding, her descriptions of just how devastating such an event can be are almost unbearable to read. I kept flashing to images from Beonce’s powerful video, “Formations,” in one of which we see her draped along the hood of a car that is slowly sinking into the flood waters. Similarly, Esch and her family huddle inside their house. Ward describes the encroaching water as a “wide-nosed snake” whose tail keeps getting wider. Just before they break the door into their attic, “There is something long and dark blue between the trees. It is a boat. Someone has come to save us. But then I squint and the wind lags clear for one second, and it is not a boat, and no one has come to save us. It is Daddy’s truck…. The snake has come to eat and play.”
Skeetah’s whole purpose, of course, is to protect China, so he takes off his pants and makes a crude but protective cradle into which he puts his beloved dog. Esch helps tie the pants leg around her brother’s neck and thinks “She is his baby in a sling, and she is shaking.” China is lost to the flood waters, devastating Skeetah, making him wish he could “shed his human shape, in the dark, be hatched a great gleaming pit [bull], black to China’s white, and run off into what is left of the woods.” As this powerful story of survival and destruction ends, the family is going to go elsewhere to try and recover. But Skeetah will not leave because he believes so fiercely that China will find him: “He will look into the future and see her emerge into the circle of his fire, beaten dirty by the hurricane so she doesn’t gleam anymore, so she is the color of his teeth, of the white of his eyes, of the bone bounded by his blood, dull but alive, alive, alive, and when he sees her, his face will break and run water, and it will wear away, like water does, the heart of stone left by her leaving.” Ward isn’t writing a white myth in which Lassie comes home. Rather the man who loves his very different animal completely suspends his own life out of a faith that flies in the face of all realities, a faith grounded in unbreakable love and profound empathy.
I think its that kind of faith and empathy that Ward is writing about, whether it’s between the man and his dog or Esch and her soon-to-be-born child or the whole family and their connectedness with each other. This is a kind of faith and empathy to which I aspire but about which I need someone like Jesmyn Ward to write a stunning story that reminds me that it is possible even for a set of characters easily seen as “throw-aways” by a crass world founded in fear of the “other.”