I’m going to New Orleans on a family vacation this week, so I finally dove into my list of related reading. I read part of The Sound and the Fury, and then finished Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I know that neither of these books are actually set in New Orleans–or even in Louisiana–but they’re close!
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones is told from the point of view of a fifteen year old, secretly pregnant girl named Esch, who lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi with her three brothers and father, her mother having died after giving birth to the littlest sibling, a seven year old named Junior. Esch’s brother Skeetah is obsessed with his pit bull, China, who’s just given birth to a precarious litter of puppies. (Do you see a theme here? Down to the number of puppies–four–who survive the birth.)
The first two thirds of the book are pretty even in tone–the drama is at a consistent level, the story progresses but not in major ways, information is revealed but nothing is revelatory. The biggest source of tension, and the most concentrated focus, is on the dog and Skeetah’s obsessive care for her, which conflicts with his decision to fight her before her puppies are weaned. I cared about the story, but I didn’t care THAT much. Here’s the thing, though: I got progressively more nervous anyway. Why? Because Esch’s Daddy worries about hurricanes and the reader knows that, alphabetically, the “K” hurricane is on its way. I’ve read a few other stories and books that use real-life natural and/or manmade disasters in this way, where the event is allowed to interrupt a story that already has it’s own trajectory. Narrative drama is so often internal or interpersonal; it is interesting to read something that, in a way, hews closer to reality. No matter what was going on in the private lives of thousands of families in 2005, Hurricane Katrina derailed all of their stories. Ward illustrates this to great effect in Salvage the Bones. By the time I was done with the book, I understood and admired every choice she made leading up to the ending.
This book also does a great job explaining something that I think can seem inexplicable to people who live in other parts of the country–why so many people didn’t leave the area when the hurricane was on its way. The family in this book was really in their own kind of world, parallel to the media-filled one so many of the rest of us live in. The hurricane was a warning on their television, but only one member of the family–their ill father–was ever in front of the television. It wasn’t stubbornness or hubris that kept this family in place; these were people that lived through countless hurricanes. They felt like they knew what to expect, and when they realized they didn’t, it was too late.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m also reading The Sound and the Fury. The resonance between the two books is, to me, unmistakable. All the kids running amok in Mississippi, the experimental, stream-of-consciousness narration–it’s a neat pairing. I don’t know that I have the fortitude to finish The Sound and the Fury right now, but I’ll try and see how it all plays out.