Salvage the Bones

by

Jesmyn Ward

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Salvage the Bones: The Twelfth Day: Alive Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Esch looks back on the final hours of the storm. She and her family sat huddled in the attic as the wind died down and the water receded inch by inch. Esch crawled over to Skeetah who was looking out the attic as if he wanted to jump—Esch touched his shoulder and his skin was hot, though the room and the air were both freezing. Skeetah said that he failed China. Esch told him he didn’t, but he wouldn’t hear otherwise. Esch pointed out that Skeetah did not fail their family. As Skeetah started to sob, Esch held him tight.
Skeetah, having lost China, is utterly inconsolable. The fact that he saved his family seems not to matter at all; he can only focus on the fact that he has lost China, who was a mother, a sister, a daughter, and a goddess to him all at once. The Batistes’ whole lives have been about survival, but now it becomes clear that to survive sometimes is even more painful than the alternative.
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Skeetah proclaimed that when the water receded to a certain level—the middle of the tractor tires—he was going to go out and look for China. Sure enough, when the rubber became visible over the roiling water, Skeetah began squirming to leave, though Daddy insisted the storm wasn’t over. Skeetah jumped from the attic and waded out through the yard through the waist-high water, turning to look back only once before disappearing into a maze of debris.
Skeetah’s determination to set off after China at the earliest possible moment mirrors her earlier need to follow her puppies, no matter the cost—his squirming and jerking even recalls China’s own desperate physical attempts to get away and pursue her young.
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The water eventually receded all the way, leaving Daddy’s ruined truck marooned atop the gas tank and the inside of the house wet, muddy, and in disarray. Randall pointed out that their family needed to get to shelter, especially with Daddy’s hand having been exposed to bacteria in the floodwater. Randall assured Daddy that they could fix up the house before leading the family, barefoot, down the main road to Big Henry’s house.
The Batistes have survived—but their home has just barely held on. Their grandparents’ house, once merely a salvaging site, has become their refuge—however their many years of reaping from it have left it an inadequate shelter, and they must seek safety elsewhere.
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When the Batistes arrived at Big Henry’s house, they found it intact, despite missing a small part of its roof. Big Henry and Marquise had been just about to leave and search for the Batistes. Big Henry asked where Skeetah was, and Esch explained he’d gone looking for China, who’d washed away. In the crowd gathered at Big Henry’s, Esch locked eyes with Manny—when Randall saw, he asked her if Manny was her baby’s father, and she nodded. Randall announced he’d beat the shit out of Manny, but Esch answered that there was no need; she’d already taken care of it. Big Henry’s mother helped Daddy settle on the sofa and fixed everyone up with sandwiches, while Marquise left with his dog, Lala, to look for Skeetah, only to return emptyhanded. Skeetah would not leave the Pit, and wanted to wait for China’s return.
As the Batistes seek shelter at Big Henry’s house, real life comes flooding back in. They have survived the storm, but the problems they had to face before it hit remain waiting for them; namely, Esch’s uncomfortable situation with Manny, and the fact that she must deal with her family’s new knowledge of her pregnancy.
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Now, the sun has emerged and burned away the lingering storm clouds. Big Henry and one of his uncles discuss the damage throughout the town, which has rendered whole roads and bridges completely impassible. Daddy asks Esch if what Skeetah said during the storm was true, and Esch nods. Daddy apologizes for pushing her, and asks how long she’s been with child. Esch admits she doesn’t know. Daddy tells her that as soon as they can they’ll get her to a doctor to make sure that everything is okay with the baby. Esch wonders if her father can feel the phantom pain of his missing fingers the way she feels the phantom pain of her dead mother. She decides in that moment that if her child is a girl, she will name it Rose, after Mama.
Daddy has been something of an antagonist throughout the novel, his constant warnings about the storm and his drunken stumblings a source of anxiety and frustration for Esch and her siblings. Now, however, Daddy displays compassion, empathy, and understanding as he discusses Esch’s pregnancy with her; she realizes that her father is missing just as much, if not more than she herself is, and that the pain they each feel is twinned and entwined.
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Big Henry walks over to Esch and asks if she, Randall, and Junior want to take a car ride through the neighborhood to see the damage. Esch agrees, and suggests they go collect Skeetah on the way back. Daddy predicts that Skeetah won’t leave the Pit. He grips his bad hand and complains that it’s ailing him. Big Henry promises they’ll find him some medicine. Esch decides that if her child is a boy, she will name it after Skeetah—the baby will be called Jason.
The reveal that Skeetah has, all along, been a nickname for Jason demonstrates part of the reason why Esch felt such an attachment to the story of Medea—the parallels between the myth and her own life are reinforced, and readers can better see how the mythic figures in the tale reminded Esch of the real-life figures in her own world.
Themes
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Big Henry drives through town on the sodden bayou road. Trees everywhere have been ripped down, and Esch is shocked by how much sky she can see. On the main road through the neighboring town, St. Catherine, the high school is flooded and the elementary school is “flat as a pancake.” Most power lines are down, and eighteen-wheeler trucks have been overturned in a parking lot nearby. As the group passes the elementary school gym—or what used to be the gym—Esch remembers the drama that unfolded there just a few days ago. There is a house sitting in the middle of the train tracks, and, nearer to the beach, all of the houses and buildings have been flattened to piles of wood. The fancy old homes that once made Esch and her family “feel small and dirty and poorer than ever” are completely gone—they have not even been reduced to rubble, but have simply been swept away.
Katrina has all but completely destroyed the town of St. Catherine, leaving uncanny ruins and utter devastation in her wake. There is something Grecian about the image of Esch picking through a series of ruins—feeling both a sense of profound sadness and a strange superiority at seeing the institutions which once made her feel small and oppressed now leveled to the ground.
Themes
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As the group makes their way back down the ravaged road, they come upon the ruins of a local liquor store. Randall suggests they get some bottles for Daddy, and they all get down on hands and knees to grab whatever is still intact. Esch picks through the glass and gathers up some shards, slipping the prettiest ones into her pocket. Big Henry squats down next to Esch, and admits that he overheard Esch talking to Daddy about her pregnancy back at the house. He asks who the daddy is, and Esch replies mutely that the baby has no daddy. Big Henry replies that Esch is wrong; her baby has “plenty daddies.” Esch is moved and begins crying. Big Henry tells her that she can always count on him, and Esch is overcome with love and gratitude for Big Henry. 
In a moving reversal of Esch’s despairing claim that her child will have no father, Big Henry declares that Esch’s baby will in fact be surrounded by fathers. Though Esch and her siblings have felt profoundly the lack of motherly influences on their lives, Esch’s child will have a mother—and the benefit of several loving paternal figures to boot. There is something mythic about the idea of a child surrounded by such a plethora of “daddies”—Esch’s life continues to mirror myth, even as the myths she held dear have come crashing down around her.
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Esch decides that she will tie the pieces of glass she’s salvaged together with string and hang the jagged shards above her bed so that they tell the story of Katrina, “the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered.” She wants to remember “the murderous mother who cut [her and her family] to the bone but left [them] alive,” and taught them how to crawl and salvage.
Though Katrina took from Esch, ravaged her home, destroyed her town, and resulted in unimaginable loss, Esch recognizes the violently maternal nature in such a cataclysmic event; though the storm has robbed her community of so much, it will also teach them to rebuild.
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Back at the Pit, Skeetah has made a clearing in what “used to be” the yard but is now a mess of trees, branches, wood, and garbage. The house is slathered in mud and tilted to the side. Skeetah sits on an overturned bucket before a fire he has built. Next to him is a pile of China’s things.
In this passage, it looks as if Skeetah has constructed an altar at which he is worshipping in hopes of bringing China back. The fire and her piled things are reminiscent of Greek sites of worship and prayer.
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Randall asks Skeetah to come back to Big Henry’s with them—they are all worried about him. Skeetah shakes his head, though, and insists he’s not going anywhere; he knows China is still out there somewhere. Big Henry suggests Skeetah come back for the night and return to the Pit during the day to wait. Even if China comes back and finds the house abandoned, she will not leave again. Skeetah insists there is no “if,” and rubs his head. Esch thinks he looks like he could easily shed his human shape and emerge as a “great gleaming pit, black to China’s white.”
Skeetah’s strange, intense relationship with China throughout the novel culminates in this passage as his faith in her return holds steady even in the face of his friends’ and siblings’ doubts. Esch sees another dimension to her brother—quite literally—in this passage as she recognizes the savage protectiveness in him, and the animalistic commitment to survival he has.
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Skeetah assures the others that China will come back to him. Esch enters her imagination and predicts that she, her siblings, and Big Henry will sit with Skeetah until they fall asleep, one by one, while Skeetah feeds the fire and listens for any sound of China. Esch predicts that China will return standing up tall and straight with “the milk burned out of her,” knowing that Esch has kept watch for her. She will call Esch sister, Esch hopes—she will know that Esch, too, is a mother.
In the novel’s final moments—simultaneously their most hopeful and hopeless—Esch retreats again into her imagination and constructs a mythic, epic return for China. In this vision, China at last recognizes her as an equal—Esch has embraced her role as a mother, and all of the violence and strife that will accompany it, and seems to long to worship at China’s altar just like Skeetah so that she can learn from a truly devoted mother figure at last.
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