Salvage the Bones

by

Jesmyn Ward

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Salvage the Bones: The Eleventh Day: Katrina Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Esch remembers that when she was little and her mother first told her about hurricanes, she assumed animals fled before the storm. Now, though, she realizes that “maybe the small don’t run;” maybe, they hunker down, stand together, and prepare for what’s to come, just like Esch and her family have done.
Though in the previous chapter Esch noticed that animals seemed to be fleeing, she decides now to see strength in staying and fighting to survive.
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Esch and her brothers have made pallets to sleep on in the living room, and they spend the night before the storm hits washing dishes, filling the bathtubs, and watching cartoons. Only Skeetah and Daddy stay in their rooms. Unable to sleep, Esch stays up reading her mythology book, moving past the Medea myth at last. She realizes, as she reads, that in all the Greek myths, water means death.
In ancient Greece, the sea was difficult to traverse and full of terrors, so water often represented death or at least serious danger for the gods and heroes of myth. Esch realizes now that water also represents that same threat to her family now—a threat as old as time.
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Esch remembers the worst storm she ever weathered in her lifetime. While Mama was still pregnant with Junior, a category three storm called Elaine hit. Esch knows, though, that Katrina is a category five, and will be much more destructive. She remembers that her mother talked to the storm the whole time it bore down on them; now, Esch wonders if she will be able to keep her baby safe if she talks to the storm and “spell[s] it harmless like Medea.”
Esch, like China, now has “something to protect;” she looks to her memories of her own mother, combined with her knowledge of Medea’s powers and actions, for how to handle her mounting fear as the storm approaches.
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In the morning, the sun will not come out. The wind outside sounds like a train. Skeetah comes into the living room for a lamp, then asks Esch to come with him back to his bedroom. In the room, the sound of the wind is even louder. China is on the bed, and the puppies are on the floor in a bucket. Esch and Skeetah reminisce about their mother. Skeetah asks Esch if she remembers the last thing their mother ever said to them; Esch admits she does not. Skeetah recalls that as Daddy loaded Mama into the truck to take her to the hospital, she called for Esch and Skeetah to look after one another. Skeetah tells Esch that she looks more and more like their mother the older she gets, and Esch doesn’t know what to say.
Though Skeetah has adopted China as a kind of mother figure, Esch is still figuring out whom—or what—she should look to for inspiration, guidance, and comfort. To hear Skeetah say that Esch herself resembles their dead mother surprises and perhaps even excites her—she has been searching for surrogate mothers all this time without realizing that her own mother’s voice and strength have been inside her all along.
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Skeetah hears something outside. He goes to the window and listens, then identifies the noise as a dog barking. The heavy rain and the leaves of the trees smacking the roof and windows make it hard to hear, but the dog is barking loudly. Skeetah knows they can’t go outside and call the dog in, but wishes they could. China begins to growl and bark herself, lifting her head towards the ceiling. Suddenly, there is a deafening noise elsewhere in the house; Esch and Skeetah run out to the hall to see Randall heading into Daddy’s room, where a tree has fallen in and left a gaping hole in the ceiling. Daddy retrieves an envelope from his dresser and then ushers everyone out of his room to safety.
China’s seemingly clairvoyant—or at least intuitive—knowledge of the ceiling’s impending destruction shows the connection she has to nature and to violence alike. This connection spooks everyone, but is nonetheless a marvel as Skeetah and the rest of his family confront the ways in which China’s presence has saved—and will continue to save—all of their lives.
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In the living room, Daddy predicts that the storm will be over in just a few hours. Esch marvels at how China seemed to know that something was about to happen to the ceiling before it caved in, but Skeetah denies that China knew anything. Skeetah brings China and the puppies into the living room, and China drapes herself across Skeetah’s lap protectively.
Skeetah doesn’t want to imbue China with magical or mythical powers for some reason—and yet even as he denies her ability to protect them all, she positions herself protectively around Skeetah.
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A little while later, Randall notices that the floor is wet. Esch has been concentrating on her mythology book, rereading Medea’s story. She looks down, and sees that the carpet beneath her is dark. Skeetah stands up and looks around; he states that water is coming up through the floorboards. Daddy and Randall assure him that couldn’t happen, but Skeetah goes to the window and looks out; sure enough; there is a lake growing in the yard, heading right for the house. Within seconds, there is water over Esch’s toes, and then her ankles. Junior squeals and points out the window—the water has picked up Daddy’s truck and is carrying it through the yard.
Just as Esch’s book predicted, the threat of water soon encroaches upon her family. The storm surge comes on fast and furious, and the sight of the car floating like a boat throughout the yard signals just how violent, powerful, and indiscriminate the storm is—and is yet to become.
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Daddy instructs Randall to open up the attic. Skeetah hands Esch the puppies’ bucket so that he can help. Once the ladder has come down from the ceiling, everyone climbs up into the attic, and Skeetah pulls the attic door shut behind them. Up in the attic, beneath the thin roof, Esch and her brothers can hear every rush of wind and rain. It is dark, and no one can see anything. Within minutes, Skeetah realizes that the water is coming up into the attic. Skeetah gets up and begins banging at the ceiling, making a hole. Randall helps him, swinging a chain saw at the roof until it gives. Light floods the attic, and Randall climbs out into the “hungry maw” of the hurricane.
As the Batistes climb higher and higher into the belly of their house, Katrina chases them all the way out—she is almost personified in her relentless pursuit of them. Ward has set the storm up both practically through language and symbolically as a part of the triad of “mother” figures throughout the novel in order to illustrate how nature—despite being the most uncontrollable, impersonal force in the world—often feels pointedly destructive, as if it has a personal vendetta against its victims.
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The wind and rain are terrible, but one by one the Batistes climb up onto the roof. Skeetah removes his jeans and makes a sling in which he can carry China, who shakes and trembles with fear. Up on the roof, Skeetah points to Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph’s house—it is on a slight incline, and thus above the water line. Though the yard is flooded, Skeetah points out that they can climb the large oak tree which spreads like a “jungle gym” between the two houses, just above the rushing water. Daddy insists it’s too dangerous, but Randall warns him they’ll drown if they stay on the roof.
The Batistes, afraid of drowning in their own house, are determined to survive however possible—even if it means going deeper into the storm in order to get out of its way.
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Randall, Skeetah, and Junior all jump down onto the tree, and then it is Esch’s turn. She is hesitant, but Daddy urges her, and she leaps—burdened by the bucket full of puppies, she worries she won’t make it over to the house. She struggles across the branches, with Daddy close behind her. Everyone follows Skeetah through the rushing water and debris. He shouts that he is going to swim up to the house and break a window, and asks Esch to come with him. Daddy accuses him of trying to save the puppies over everything else, but Skeetah shouts out that Esch is pregnant.
Skeetah’s reveal of Esch’s pregnancy shows both that he has known all along what is going on with her, and is desperate in this moment to make sure that she—and her baby—are saved. The life of her unborn child is more important to Skeetah than keeping his sister’s secret. Whereas Esch has been trying to erase the child’s presence the whole novel (to her own and possibly to its detriment), Skeetah now calls everything out into the open, ensuring that Esch is treated like a mother and given the special treatment needed to accommodate the new life inside of her.
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Esch knows that her father is able to see she is pregnant; her wet clothes stick to her, revealing her new curves and fullness. Esch struggles down into the water, and she slips and falls, dropping the puppies, who fly out of the bucket and into the water. Skeetah cries out as China struggles against him, scratching him. Esch reaches out and grabs a puppy—the brindle runt—but can’t spot the other two anywhere. She tucks the puppy into her shirt. China jerks and writhes, getting out of Skeetah’s sling and swimming after the lost puppies.
As the puppies are carried away by the storm, China struggles away from her beloved owner and bounds into the unknown to rescue them in a stark reversal of the ending of the Medea myth. China wants to save her two remaining puppies, not kill them, and she is borne away into the water rather than the air.
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Esch feels the water rise over her head—she is frightened, but the hiss of the water makes her feel as if the hurricane is trying to comfort her. She feels a hand wrap around her leg, and realizes that Skeetah is pulling her up and pushing her through the broken window. He calls for China, but she is gone. Randall and Junior haul themselves up into the house while Daddy swims lopsidedly, favoring his bad hand. Randall hoists Daddy up into the attic; Esch realizes that the puppy she has tucked into her shirt isn’t moving, and has died. Skeetah calls out for China—Esch looks into the water and sees her swimming into the woods. Junior places his hands over his eyes, rocks back and forth, and wails “No” over and over and over again as the wind continues to howl.
As true chaos descends on the Batistes, very nearly ripping them apart from one another forever, they are each traumatized in their own separate way. Skeetah’s loss is arguably the greatest, just behind China’s own terrible loss. Everyone’s lives, though, have been forever changed by the day’s events, and the storm is not even over yet.
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