I think I've established here the fact that I am not a big fan of dogs. The odd thing about that is that I grew up with a dog—we got our small white dog, Brittany, right around my first birthday, so I always thought she was my dog. She was a good dog, friendly and happy but quick to bark at strangers (a positive quality for a dog in a houseful of girls). She was my companion for plenty of hours of playing in the backyard. I loved her and she helped make my childhood happier. But I have zero desire to have a dog now. In fact I often joke with Kendell that "not owning a dog" is the only thing we've ever agreed on! It's the poop thing, really. And the way your hands feel after you pet a dog. And the doggy smell. I don't know, exactly. I just don't want a dog.
I tend, therefore, to not read a lot of books that feature dogs as important characters. On the other hand, I try to read most of the major award-winning novels in any given year, and despite the fact that Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (which won the National Book Award) actually features a dog on its cover, something drew me to it. It tells the story of a family living in Mississippi in August of 2005---the summer that Katrina hit. People tend to think about New Orleans in conjunction with Katrina, but the worst damage was actually in the Mississippi coastal towns, which were all flooded. In some places the flooding reached 12 miles from the coast.
This is a poverty-stricken family we discover in the book. Their mother died giving birth to Junior about nine years ago, and the father tries, but he's also a drinker and a hitter and a little bit unreliable in the job department. Randall, the oldest brother, is trying to win a scholarship spot to a basketball camp that could help him earn a college scholarship; the next brother, Skeetah, is trying to keep the puppies of his pit bull, China, alive and healthy. And then there is Esch, the only girl and the character through whose eyes we experience the story's twelve days. Esch, who's 15, is trying to keep on top of her summer reading assignment for English, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, as well as trying to deal with her dawning realization: she pregnant, by way of her rushed and sad encounters with Manny, Randall's best friend. Manny has a real girlfriend, but he still likes Esch enough, and Esch, a heartbreaking combination of toughness and twitterpation, likes him better than all the other boys she's been with because "it was easier to let them keep on touching her than to hear them ask ‘why not?’" With Manny she feels like it's different, like he's choosing her because he loves her. "He wanted my girl heart; I gave him both of them."
One thing I loved about Esch was how her reading influences how she thinks. She is mesmerized by the romance stories in Mythology and weaves the experiences of Io and Artemis and, mostly, Medea (the woman who was betrayed by Jason) into her interpretations of what happens. This reminds me of the power of myth and its universality. And of how, when life grows desperate, story can be the rope we pull ourselves through with. That is the strength of those old stories for Esch. She is desperate: hungry all the time, and uncomfortable at the small bulge her t-shirts no longer hide, and nauseous and still wanting Manny to really see her.
Within the scope of the novel's twelve days, we get a glimpse of the life this family lives. They are an interesting combination of hard shelled and soft, aggressive and tender. Skeetah's relationship with China infuses all of the family members in one way or another. For Esch, China—who doesn't really seem to like being the mother of puppies and would rather continue on fighting other dogs—she is sort of an anti-hero. Each of Esch's significant experiences seem to occur in relation to one of China's, so at times I had to stop and think: is this happening to China? or to Esch?
Salvage the Bones is a perfectly Amy sort of book. Which means I loved it but I read it trying to think of who else would also love it. It's a harsh book in experience, but written in a memorable and haunting voice. Plus there is a sense for me of experience lived backwards. I remember thinking, while Katrina was happening, just how strange life was: that there I was, sitting on my comfortable bed nursing my baby while my kids played outside and my husband made quesadillas while, at the same time, at right that very second, someone was living in misery and terror that no one could do anything about. I wanted my thoughts for that random person, who could even be dying, to be enough to save her, but of course it couldn't be. I couldn't do anything from my vantage point. Reading this book brought me back to that moment, gave me a story I cold hook to that experience and even though by reading I still couldn't do anything to change the outcome, it let me feel like more of a witness to the experience so that, too, could weave around my life.