The Batiste family exists on the edge of despair: nothing works, nothing goes right. The mother dies in childbirth, leaving the only daughter and the story’s narrator, 15-year-old Esch, with three brothers – two older and one younger – and a father given to drink and meanness. Their rural Mississippi house sits on cinder blocks; the yard collects junk; the refrigerator holds little in the way of nourishment. Compared to the other poor blacks in the community, the Batistes are hard up; compared to their white neighbors, they’re destitute. While 7-year-old Junior plays at being a kid, the others scheme and dream. Daddy of picking up a few dollars with his old truck. Randall of basketball camp and an athletic scholarship to college. Skeetah of getting rich selling the puppies bred from his prize pit bull China. And Esch, who had her first sexual encounter at 12, of securing the love of the young man who left her with child and is in love with someone else. In the “Pit,” a sunken gap in the woods that the family calls home, “everything is starving, struggling, fighting” and about to get much worse.
Hurricane Katrina is headed toward the hardscrabble coastal town of Bois Sauvage. The storm appears as a whisper on the cloudy television; only the father who lived through the infamous Hurricane Camille takes heed. More drunk than sober, he struggles to prepare but the truth is that nothing the family does will suffice. Unable to evacuate, they stay and what they endure is unimaginable and yet rendered so vividly that the storm’s fury can be both heard and felt as the wind screams and the rising water overflows the page.
Salvage the Bones transforms news reports and TV video of the disaster into a story that seeps into the blood and promises to stay there a long time. The book, which won the National Book Award, is one that could be written only by someone who endured the storm, as Jesmyn Ward did.