Book Response: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

April 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Themes of death and motherhood in Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward


Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is an intimate look at life, death, pregnancy, and the sometimes twisted role played by motherhood in these matters.  Most striking to me about this reading experience were the many metaphors employed to weave this theme through the story, especially through China, Esch, and Katrina itself.

The book begins with a graphic description of China giving birth to a litter of puppies, and Esch is surprised that she has gone against her violent nature and begun to nurture them rather than hurt or kill them.  Esch herself is motherless, having lost her mother during the childbirth of her younger brother Junior, and this might have something to do with her unusually prolific sex life at such a young age.  She still thinks a lot about her mother and reviews many memories as the story progresses.  She has also acted as a mother figure (in some ways) for her brothers, making them meals and listening to Skeet when he needs someone to confide in.  I found it interesting that China and Esch are the two main female characters in this story, and both of them are thrust unwillingly into the role of motherhood.  China was pregnant because Skeet chose to mate her, and Esch becomes so by accident because she wanted to give herself to Manny.  China begins to go crazy and kills one of her babies, and Esch attempts to give herself an abortion by punching herself in the stomach.  Many times throughout the novel, Esch thinks of the Greek myth of Medea.  Medea killed her own children to get revenge on their father for betraying her.  However, when Manny finally betrays Esch by denying that he is the father of her baby, Esch attacks him but does not even consider trying to harm her unborn child.  Eventually, she even decides to name the baby Jason if it’s a boy, after the betraying husband in the story.  I read this as an homage to Manny, despite his renunciation of her and the baby.  Big Henry steps up to take the fatherly role, and Esch realizes that she is different from these raging women who can’t forget their pain and end up hurting themselves worst of all.

Katrina is the “mother” who causes Esch to have this kind of revelation.  The hurricane can be seen as a representation of Mother Nature.  Mother Nature sustains and nurtures all life on earth, but at the same time, she has the destructive power to completely obliterate her children at the same time.  Although Esch’s family makes it through the storm alive, thousands and thousands of others died in it, and this can be seen as the largest metaphor for a furious mother murdering her own children.  It was especially interesting to me that China was the only one to die in the storm, when China and Katrina can be most closely linked as violent mothers.  At the end of the novel, it is China’s death which ironically gives Esch the strength and optimism to face her future.  She no longer associates herself with Medea and embraces her burgeoning motherhood.  The final image of the book has Esch imagining China’s return and thinking, “[She] will bark and call me sister . . . she will know that I am a mother.” (259)  The circle of motherhood is complete, and Esch accepts her role to begin the cycle anew with her unborn baby.


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