Salvage the Bones: A Novel
by Jesmyn Ward

Published: 2012-04-24
Paperback : 288 pages
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Winner of the 2011 National Book AwardA hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are s...
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Winner of the 2011 National Book Award

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets; she's fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull's new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child's play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that make up the novel's framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family-motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce-pulls itself up to face another day. A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.

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Discussion Questions

1. Salvage the Bones opens with China giving birth to a litter of puppies in the shed. What
do we learn about Esch and the rest of the Batiste family during this scene? How does
each of Esch’s brothers react to the puppies’ birth? What will Esch learn about
motherhood from watching China with her puppies?
2. Esch’s summer reading assignment, Mythology by Edith Hamilton, includes the story of
the tragic romance between Jason and Medea. How does the myth of Jason and Medea
relate to Esch’s relationship with Manny? In the end, does Esch betray her family for
love, as Medea did?
3. Chart Esch’s attitude toward her pregnancy through the twelve days of the novel. How
does Esch first realize that she might be pregnant, and how does she react when her
suspicion is confirmed? When do we see Esch in stages of denial, fear, and acceptance?
How do Skeetah and Daddy respond when they discover Esch’s pregnancy?
4. Discuss the nature of Skeetah’s bond with his pit bull, China. Why is Skeetah so
committed to China and her puppies? How does Skeetah negotiate his responsibilities to
his family and to his dog?
5. How does Daddy seem to know that a storm is coming before anyone else? How do his
children and neighbors react to his early preparations? Why do Daddy’s precautions fail
in the face of Katrina’s destruction?
6. Esch wonders “if Daddy will feel his missing fingers the way we feel Mama, present in
the absence” (247). Discuss the presence of Mama in the novel, even though she has been
dead for seven years. How does Mama live on in her children’s memory?
7. The fifth chapter has the same title as the novel, “Salvage the Bones.” Review the chapter
and discuss what the title means. How does the title fit the chapter as well as the novel as
a whole?
8. Discuss the depiction of violence in Salvage the Bones. What do scenes of violence—
including Daddy’s loss of his fingers, China’s brutal killing of her puppy, and the
dogfight between China and Kilo—add to the novel? How do violence and tenderness
coexist in this troubled setting?
9. Consider how Manny betrays Esch and her brothers. How does Manny treat Esch before
and after he learns of her pregnancy? Why does Manny turn on Skeetah and China and
support Rico and Kilo in the dogfight?
10. Randall tells Skeetah, “You just like Daddy. Always crazy for something” (157). Discuss
the similarities and differences between Skeetah and Daddy. How do the similarities
between father and son create conflict between them?
11. Discuss the setting of Salvage the Bones. How does the Pit—the lot where the Batiste
family has lived for generations—look and feel? What is it like to grow up in the town of
Bois Sauvage? What are race relations like in this rural Mississippi area?
12. Review the scenes of the hurricane, in which Esch, her brothers, and Daddy scramble
from their attic to their roof to Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph’s house in order to
escape the rising water. How do these family members help each other survive these
treacherous conditions? Why does Daddy throw Esch into the water, and how does he
later express regret?
13. Skeetah lets go of China in order to save Esch from drowning in the storm. Does Skeetah
seem to regret his choice of sister over dog? What is the mood at the end of the novel, as
Skeetah waits by the house for China to return to him?
14. Big Henry tells Esch, “This baby got plenty of daddies” (255). Name the “daddies” who
will help Esch raise her child. What assistance does each of these boys and men have to
15. Compare the portrayal of Katrina in Salvage the Bones to what you saw of the hurricane
in the news. Which aspects of the storm’s devastation does this novel bring to life? What
does Esch’s perspective add to your understanding of Katrina’s impact?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub


“Lyrical … Ward’s writing is startling in its graphic clarity … talent like this shouts from every page.”—Boston Globe

[A] poetic second novel … [main character] Esch traces in the minutiae of every moment of every scene of her life the thin lines between passion and violence, love and hate, life and death … her voice … [gives] its cast of small lives a huge resonance.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“SALVAGE THE BONES, the 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale…. It’s an old story – of family honor, revenge, disaster – and it’s a good one…. And Jesmyn Ward makes beautiful music, plays deftly with her reader’s expectations: where we expect violence, she gives us sweetness. When we brace for beauty, she gives us blood…. For all its fantastical underpinnings, SALVAGE THE BONES is never wrong when it comes to suffering. Sorrow and pain aren’t presented as especially ennobling. They exist to be endured – until the next Katrina arrives to “cut us to the bone.” And like every good myth, at its heart, the book is salvific; it wants to teach you how to wait out the storm and swim to safety.”—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review

“SALVAGE THE BONES…. is often strikingly beautiful, taut, relentless and, by its end, indelible…. Ward stares down the truth of a way of life in a manner so fierce as to make that way of life instantly real…. The bitterness of having nothing, prospects of nothing - so inexorable and crushing that a kind of madness descends, causing the principals to turn on each other as well as fight to protect each other - soaks these pages. A reader can taste it. It's astonishingly brave.”—Joan Frank, San Francisco Chronicle

“SALVAGE THE BONES is an intense book, with powerful, direct prose that dips into poetic metaphor…. [The] close-knit familial relationship is vivid and compelling, drawn with complexities and detail…. Ward, 34, accepted the National Book Award saying that 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 this novel of dogfighting, unwanted pregnancy and poverty, she has done just that. It's fortunate that this particular panel of judges was listening.”—Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

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