Another hot, drippy August envelopes the Batiste family and their tumbledown property in coastal Mississippi, but there’s an excited air surrounding what’s about to happen in the shed.
Their crystal-white pit bull, China, tenderly cared for by 16-year-old Skeetah, is ready to give birth to her first litter. In the novel “Salvage the Bones,” author Jesmyn Ward explores that day and the next 11 in the lives of this Southern black family of five. All are struggling to find and fill their roles in the years after the loss of Mama, who died in childbirth.
As Skeetah guides China through her first attempt at motherhood, 15-year-old Esch, smart and passionate, discovers she is pregnant. Unknown to them, far out in the Gulf, a storm is slowly working itself into a deadly, devastating hurricane — to be named Katrina.
Ward’s frank prose is beautiful and harsh poetry. As a fellow Southern author put it, Ward writes like “an angel with a knife to your throat.” A native of DeLisle, Miss., and a Katrina survivor, Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for “Salvage the Bones,” her second novel.
Here are edited excerpts from a conversation with her.
Question: Did you set out to write a story that had a part for Hurricane Katrina?
Answer: I didn’t think I was going to write about Hurricane Katrina. I started with Esch. I’ve been thinking about her character since my first novel. I wanted to write about a girl growing up in a world of men. I realized sometime in the first chapter that Katrina was going to occur at the end of the book.
After the hurricane (in 2005) I didn’t write anything for around 2 1/2 years. I didn’t realize how much it had affected me at the time. I was here with my family for the hurricane. So not only did I have to deal with the experience of surviving the hurricane, being out in the hurricane when it was going on, but with the residual terror in the knowledge that a storm like that can take away everything your family has within a matter of hours. I had to contend with all that, and the rebuilding process.
We got hit by the worst of the storm. After the rubble was cleared away, it just looked like things disappeared. There was a gas station there, and it’s not there anymore. And the trailer park there, it’s not there anymore. I had no hope during that time. So I needed enough time to pass beyond Katrina to see that people would come back and they would rebuild.
Once I got to that point, I thought about writing something new.
Q: Who is this family you created? Are these people you know?
A: I feel like the kind of people I write about are the kind of people I grew up with, the families that I know in my community. Most everyone is working-class, and there are some intact families, but a lot of families aren’t. That was always a reality when I was growing up.
This situation, the lack of a mother at home, it’s happened now in both of my novels. When I think about my experiences of the people around me, that’s not the case most of the time. I’ve never really examined that choice.
Q: No doubt the mother’s absence is felt. Her death looms over everything.
A: I knew the novel was going to revolve around Esch’s character, and the first definition I had of her was that she would be a girl growing up in a world of men. But for that reason, I had to put Esch in that situation. So yes, her mom had to die. I feel like an evil god.
Again this is the total opposite of what my hometown is really like. The women are the ones who stay, and there’s a network of women. It would be hard for Esch to have this experience because she would have aunts, a grandmother, cousins, this extended family of women. So I had to manipulate that in the story and create her isolation.
Q: So then why put in her that situation?
A: I wanted to understand how she was going to find her place in the world. Because she doesn’t have these models in her life, she begins looking to Greek mythology (Esch is intrigued by her school reading of “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Medea”), and to China (Skeetah’s dog) and to the natural world for her cues. That really surprised me and really endeared me to her character. She’s cast afield, and she has to come to understand what it means to become a woman and a mother.
Q: Skeetah hopes to breed China and make money for the family that way, but he also enters her in dog fights. What kind of reaction are you getting from readers about the dog fighting in the story? I was put off at first.
A: Yes, I’ve gotten that reaction. People say they are predisposed to loathe people who fight dogs, and so the story was a completely new experience for them. Because when they encounter Skeetah and China, they find themselves rooting for them. I hope that’s a testament to the power of those characters.
Skeetah has this fierceness and tenderness. And he also has this detached demeanor at times. He has to make choices, and they’re influenced by his love. He loves his family, but at the same time he loves China and has a deep sense of loyalty to her.
In a way I don’t even understand their relationship. People say that certain things “saved” them. I think Greek mythology is one of the things that saves Esch. Before the novel opens, I think China has saved Skeetah in some way.
Q: Did you experience dog fighting as a youngster?
A: What I knew about dog fighting was what I had seen as a child and teenager. Some people in my family fought dogs in the same way the characters in the book fight their dogs, for bragging rights, not for money. I never witnessed anyone fight dogs for money. That was the culture here, and most everyone had pit bulls. I don’t see it much now. Dog fighting has been demonized in popular culture.
Q: The story occurs over 12 days, a day per chapter. That’s such a short time period. Why?
A: I wanted to challenge myself, to see what it would be like to write a book with a truncated time frame. I wanted to see how far I could jack up the tension, how the tension could increase as I increased the pace of the novel. Once I discovered that Hurricane Katrina was going to occur in the story, the short time frame made sense. It all came together.
Q: Is your fictional town of Bois Sauvage much like your hometown of De Lisle?
A: It’s very much like Bois Sauvage: small, rural, mostly black and everyone is working-class. There’s a bayou and lots of woods. Parts of it can seem really isolated.
Q: In English that would be Savage Woods, right?
A: I wanted it to have a French name, and I used “sauvage” because it means “savage” but also “wild” and it made me think of a wolf, a wild animal. Before Delisle was named after a French settler, it was called Wolf Town.
Q: The title of the book is intriguing. How did you pick it?
A: I’m not one of those who can come up with a title very quickly. I struggled with that title for probably a year.
There were two big reasons I chose that title. I feel like “salvaging the bones” is what people do here, not only after big catastrophes but constantly and with the smaller tragedies in their lives. That’s what this family does. They don’t have much materially, and the father spends most of his days salvaging things, scavenging to help his family survive. That’s what they do after the mother dies, salvage the bones of what they have, and what they have are memories of her.
I also liked “salvage” because it was close to “savage.” Here the word “savage” has a different meaning among young people. If a young person says someone is savage, that’s a badge of honor. It says you fight and you survive. The kids in this book fight and they survive any way they can. They’re tough.
Q: Tell us about your next project.
A: I’m working on a memoir that’s scheduled for spring of 2013. It’s about a very specific time in my life, from 2000 to 2004, when five young black men from my community died, and the first was my brother in 2000, hit by a drunk driver. They died in various ways, another accident, gun violence, an overdose. I’m trying to figure out how an epidemic like that could happen in a small, rural, Southern place, and I use my life and my family’s life as a context.
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EXCERPT FROM “SALVAGE THE BONES” BY JESMYN WARD
This is how the novel begins.
China’s turned on herself. If I didn’t know, I would think she was trying to eat her paws. I would think that she was crazy. Which she is, in a way. Won’t let nobody touch her but Skeet. When she was a big-headed pit bull puppy, she stole all the shoes in the house, all our black tennis shoes Mama bought because they hide dirt and hold up until they’re beaten soft. Only Mama’s forgotten sandals, thin-heeled and tinted pink with so much red mud seeped into them, looked different. China hid them all under furniture, behind the toilet, stacked them in piles and slept on them. When the dog was old enough to run and trip down the steps on her own, she took the shoes outside, put them in shallow ditches under the house. She’d stand rigid as a pine when we tried to take them away from her. Now China is giving like she once took away, bestowing where she once stole. She is birthing puppies.
What China is doing is nothing like what Mama did when she had my youngest brother, Junior. Mama gave birth in the house she bore all of us in, here in this gap in the woods her father cleared and built on that we now call the Pit. Me, the only girl and the youngest at eight, was of no help, although Daddy said she told him she didn’t need any help. Daddy said that Randall and Skeetah and me came fast, that Mama had all of us in her bed, under her own bare burning bulb, so when it was time for Junior, she thought she could do the same. It didn’t work that way. Mama squatted, screamed toward the end. Junior came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama’s last flower. She touched Junior just like that when Daddy held him over her: lightly with her fingertips, like she was afraid she’d knock the pollen from him, spoil the bloom. She said she didn’t want to go to the hospital. Daddy dragged her from the bed to his truck, trailing her blood, and we never saw her again.
What China is doing is fighting, like she was born to do. Fight our shoes, fight other dogs, fight these puppies that are reaching for the outside, blind and wet. China’s sweating and the boys are gleaming, and I can see Daddy through the window of the shed, his face shining like the flash of a fish under the water when the sun hit. It’s quiet. Heavy. Feels like it should be raining, but it isn’t. There are no stars, and the bare bulbs of the Pit burn.
“Get out the doorway. You making her nervous.” Skeetah is Daddy’s copy: dark, short, and lean. His body knotted with ropy muscles. He is the second child, sixteen, but he is the first for China. She only has eyes for him.
“She ain’t studying us,” Randall says. He is the oldest, seventeen. Taller than Daddy, but just as dark. He has narrow shoulders and eyes that look like they want to jump out of his head.
People at school think he’s a nerd, but when he’s on the basketball court, he moves like a rabbit, all quick grace and long haunches. When Daddy is hunting, I always cheer for the rabbit.
“She need room to breathe.” Skeetah’s hands slide over her fur, and he leans in to listen to her belly. “She gotta relax.”
“Ain’t nothing about her relaxed.” Randall is standing at the side of the open doorway, holding the sheet that Skeetah has nailed up for a door. For the past week, Skeetah has been sleeping in the shed, waiting for the birth. Every night, I waited until he cut the light off, until I knew he was asleep, and I walked out of the back door to the shed, stood where I am standing now, to check on him. Every time, I found him asleep, his chest to her back. He curled around China like a fingernail around flesh.
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THE JESMYN WARD FILE
Home: De Lisle, Miss.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and master’s in media studies and communication, Stanford University; master of fine arts in creative writing, University of Michigan
Work: Assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile
Award: 2011 National Book Award for “Salvage the Bones,” her second novel
Previous work: “Where the Line Bleeds,” her debut novel