Mississippi’s Own Jesmyn Ward Wins National Book Award

Only Jesmyn Ward, a native Mississippian, could have written a book like this.  The Batiste family experiences the mighty wrath of a storm named Katrina, a storm like no other that ravages not only a household but also brutally alters the surrounding landscape.  In Ward’s novel, water serves two purposes: it cleanses and it destructs.  Ward proves with her second novel Salvage the Bones that she deserves a place among Mississippi’s finest literary greats.

Ward previously wrote Where the Line Bleeds, which was an Essence Magazine Book Club selection, a Black Caucus of the ALA Honor Award recipient, and a finalist for both the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.  She received an MFA degree from the University of Michigan and won many awards and honors while a student.  From 2008 to 2010, Ward was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.  She was also the 2010-2011 John and Renѐe Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.  Currently, Ward is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.  She grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi.

Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in fiction on November 16, 2011.   Congratulations to Ward!  The award is given only to books written by American citizens and published in the United States.  Categories are fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature; only five books are considered per category.  The winner received a bronze sculpture, $10,000, and enormous prestige.  Besides Ward’s Salvage the Bones, other nominees for 2011 NBA were Andrew Krivak (The Sojourn); Téa Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife); Julie Otsuka (The Buddha in the Attic); and Edith Pearlman (Binocular Vision).  Previous winners include Jaimy Gordon for Lord of Misrule and Colum McCann for Let the Great World Spin.

Ward chooses to tell the story in the first person through Esch Batiste, a teenage girl growing up in tiny, coastal Bois Sauvage.   Esch is the only female in a household of boys and men; her mother died in childbirth.  The reader also meets Mr. Claude Batiste, the father, lonely for his wife and always on the lookout for storms.  Mr. Claude is prescient during the active hurricane season of 2005 when he predicts a storm will hit them.  “What you think I been talking about?  I knew it was coming,” Mr. Claude says.  He urges his family to prepare.  Esch’s brothers also feature prominently in the story.  Randall plays basketball, and he excels at the sport.  Desperate to attend basketball camp, Randall knows the only way he will go to college is if he wins a scholarship.  Skeetah, in my view, is the most interesting of Esch’s brothers.  He is so attached to his dog China that at times he seems like the animal’s mother or lover: “Skeetah bends down to China, feels her from neck to jaw, caresses her face like he would kiss her….”  Yet, Skeetah uses China in dog fights.  The smallest Batiste brother is Junior, the baby, who never knew his mother.  Junior loves to get into trouble and trail after his older siblings.  He worships his brothers and wants to take every step they take.  On the surface, it might seem like a perfect family.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Esch is pregnant, a fact she is keeping secret from everyone: “If I could, I would reach inside of me and pull out my heart and that tiny wet seed that will become the baby.”

With dog fighting, Ward takes on a controversial subject and does not shy away from it.  Without a doubt, dog fighting is cruel and should be abhorred, yet Ward puts a different spin on this sport.  Dog fighting is prevalent not only in the South but also within the African-American community.  Both come together here in the Batiste clan.  It is also a cheap form of entertainment in rural areas where nothing else might be going on.  As a dog lover, I was surprised by how Ward handled dog fighting.  With the Michael Vick scandal a few years ago, I had a preconceived notion of who owners were who would participate in such cruel behavior.  However, Skeetah did not fit into my stereotype.  He loved China, he took great care with her, and he took great care with her puppies.  The subject added so much to the book and also provided a wonderful sub-plot to make a good novel that much better.  I applaud Ward for writing about such a potentially dangerous topic.

Meanwhile, as Esch reads Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for school, she compares herself to Medea.  Medea, in Greek mythology, was an enchantress who used her powers to help Jason and the Argonauts find the Golden Fleece.  “Medea’s journey took her to the water, which was the highway of the ancient world, where death was as close as the waves, the sun, [and] the wind.”  In ancient Greece, Ward writes, “water meant death.”  Ward uses Medea so readers can compare this to Katrina.  Ultimately, Katrina cleanses and destroys at the same time.  The storm mends a family at the breaking point while also destroying a way of life and a landscape.  In this same vein, Ward uses hurricane metaphors throughout, a superb foreshadowing technique, such as “frothing waves.”

Hurricane Katrina, even before it has formed, looms over the entire book.  With Katrina churning, making a bull’s eye for the Mississippi coast, the reader knows it will not end well.  Although we already know what will happen, Ward manages to give us a suspense-filled novel.  We are attached to the characters and want the best for them; we want them to survive.  But nothing came out unscathed from Katrina, and the Batiste family is no exception.

Salvage the Bones is always emotional, readable, and real.   No one who ever lived through Hurricane Katrina could read this novel and not cry.  It is just impossible.  Ward’s name has hereby been added to the list of Mississippi’s literary giants.  Faulkner, Welty, Foote, Grisham, Ward.

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