Canine catastrophe

Salvage the Bones 
Jesmyn Ward 
Bloomsbury 2013,
pp 271
399

For those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in US history, causing an estimated damage of $108 billion in August-September 2005. Some 1,833 people lost their lives, making it the second deadliest hurricane in US history, with most deaths occurring in and around New Orleans in Louisiana. In terms of destroyed homesteads and property, the worst-affected region was the beachfront in the state of Mississippi.

The worst affected on the Mississippi beachfront were the poorest of the poor, most of them Afro-Americans. In Salvage the Bones, the author Jesmyn Ward recreates the last 12 days before Katrina in the life of a fictional family that is struggling to make ends meet. Playing the role of a mother is 12-year-old Esch. She is the only female in the family where mother Rose has died while giving birth to Junior at home, presumably because they can’t afford hospitalisation. Esch remembers the days when the family would sit together and watch each other’s favourite programmes on the old black-and-white TV, with her mother resting her hand on her father’s knee. “Crying ain’t gonna change anything,” her father tells them after her mother passes away. Her daddy is drunk for much of the time but retains a dignity which ensures that he is listened to by the family which, apart from Esch and Junior, consists of the teenagers Randall and Skeetah. Last, but not least, is the pit bull China who worships Skeetah.

China has no pretensions to being a well-behaved dog, living as she does on the fringes of the Great American Dream in a world that is far removed from that inhabited by the Labrador Marley, the worst dog in the world, as testified both in bestseller-book and Hollywood-movie form by his owner, the columnist John Grogan. Unlike most house pets, pit bulls are often reared to fight each other, and good behaviour is neither expected nor demanded from them.

The book begins with China delivering her first litter, attended to by Skeetah and Esch who is herself expecting, teenage pregnancy being not all that uncommon in poverty-stricken families living on the Mississippi beachfront. And so life goes on until Katrina strikes. Televised warnings by the suave Federal Emergency Management Agency boss Michael Brown are not enough to make poverty-stricken families abandon their homes before the hurricane strikes. They board up the windows and doors of the dilapidated house. Randall wants China and her pups to stay in the shed but Skeetah brings the dogs inside the house since, as he insists, ‘Everything deserves to live.”

When hurricane strikes and water enters the house, the family and dogs shift to the attic. When the house starts tilting, they break their way out of the roof and take turns to jump on to a nearby tree, China secured inside Skeetah’s shirt, with the pups being carried in a bucket by Esch. It is when they are trying to escape from the tree to higher ground that Esch falls. Skeetah rescues Esch after letting go of China, who jumps into the water and is swept away. The family survives.

The devastation caused by the hurricane almost comes across as a first-person account since the author herself survived Katrina. The hurricane destroys everything but not the spirit, which keeps the poverty-stricken community and the family together. Sharing comes naturally to the poor, maybe because they have so little to share. When the pregnant Esch refuses to identify the father of her child since he has a girlfriend, the avuncular neighbour Big Henry says, “Don’t forget you always got me. This baby got plenty daddies.”

The book ends with the family maintaining an eerie nocturnal vigil in the ruined house along with Skeetah who is waiting for China to return. “Randall will watch Junior and Big Henry will watch me and I will watch Skeetah, and Skeetah will watch none of us. He will feed the fire so it will blaze bright as a lighthouse. He will listen for the beat of her tail, the padding of her feet in mud. He will look into the future and see her emerge into the circle of his fire, 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.”

Salvage the Bones ends on a note that Steinbeck could not have bettered in The Grapes of Wrath, his 1938 masterpiece about poor Oklahoma migrants in search of a living in the vineyards of California at the height of the Great Depression.

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