The protagonist of Salvage the Bones, Esch, is a daydreamer who deals with her taxing and bleak existence by losing herself in stories—lately, she’s been preoccupied with the Greek myths she’s studying in school, particularly interest the story of Medea, who famously murdered her own children. As Esch’s story unfolds, it takes on a mythic quality itself; Esch’s struggles with poverty, teen pregnancy, and an oncoming hurricane of epic proportions all lend a darkly fantastical quality to the trials and tribulations that befall Esch and her family. Through Esch’s story—and the myths that inform it, such as the story of Medea and the biblical parable of Job—Ward suggests that the line between myth and reality is a thin one, and that even lives that seem unremarkable on the outside house battles, tests, and conflicts that are the very stuff of myth itself. In this way, then, even the most unassuming stories demand attention.
The myth most frequently referenced throughout Salvage the Bones is that of Medea, who slew her two children by her husband Jason as a way of getting revenge against him for his infidelity. The gravity of Medea’s heartless deed is compounded by her lack of remorse in most retellings of her tale—her children were but tools to her, background figures in the story of her own existence. The violence and indifference of the figure of Medea is reflected most directly through China: a symbol of all the gore, pain, and suffering that motherhood stands to bring into the pregnant Esch’s life very soon. China is a fighting dog but also Skeetah’s beloved pet—her sweet disposition and beautiful appearance at home are sharply contrasted by her ruthless instinct for blood in the ring, and her apparent indifference to her puppies. Though the pups are sacred to Skeetah, who hopes to sell them to better his family’s lives, they are nothing but meat to China for most of the novel—she viciously kills one puppy who gets too close to her food bowl, and refuses to feed another. Esch observes the duality of China’s sweetness and viciousness throughout the novel. After the storm hits and the Batistes are forced to leave their house, two of China’s puppies are washed away. China jumps out of Skeetah’s arms and swims after them into the forest, ignoring Skeetah’s calls for her to come back. In this moment, Ward orchestrates a reversal of the Medea myth. Whereas Medea killed her children and was then borne away from their corpses on the chariot of her uncle, the sun-god Helios, China’s children are taken from her, murdered by the elements, and China then willingly pursues their corpses by paddling along in a rush of cold floodwater. Ward introduces the myth, sets up a parallel, and then reverses it at the last moment. China’s story—and by proxy Esch’s and Skeetah’s, too—takes on a mythical air, but Ward subverts her audience’s expectations (which she herself has set up through the repeated invocation of the Medea myth) in order to show how life, free from the bounds of myth, can still read like myth.
The second myth informing the novel is never directly referenced, though it echoes everywhere through the trials Ward inflicts upon her characters. The biblical story of Job—a devout man who was subjected to a series of losses and humiliations in order to test his faith in God—is one of the most potent inspirations behind Salvage the Bones. As the novel progresses, Ward uses the Job myth to show how suffering of biblical proportions touches one modern American family. In the biblical story, Satan bets God that God’s most devoted follower, Job—a man with a large family, lots of land and livestock, and a comfortable fortune—will curse and abandon God should he take away all of Job’s happiness. God accepts the bet and begins dismantling Job’s life. He kills Job’s livestock, diminishes his wealth, and strikes Job with boils and disease. When Job finally dares to question why his fate has become so torturous, God appears to him in a whirlwind (evocative of Ward’s use of Hurricane Katrina to level the already-long-suffering Batistes) and asks Job how he dare question the creator of the universe. Still, Job does not abandon God, and, seeing Job’s piety and devotion, God restores everything Job has lost and doubles his fortunes, rewarding his most patient servant. Throughout the novel, the Batistes suffer a series of dark, harrowing, biblical slights. First, Skeetah struggles to keep China’s ailing puppies alive—the ones she hasn’t killed, eaten, or neglected are suffering from parvo, a gastrointestinal virus, and Skeetah must find a way to procure medicine for the valuable dogs upon which he has hinged his family’s financial salvation. Esch discovers that she is pregnant by Manny, a boy who does not love her. Esch is forced to watch as Manny showers his new girl, Shaliyah, with affection while Esch secretly suffers from morning sickness and an uncontrollable bladder. As the storm bears down on Bois Sauvage, Daddy Batiste loses the fingers on his left hand trying to service their family’s lone tractor; Junior, the youngest, suffers an insatiable hunger which his family’s meager supply of eggs and ramen noodles cannot sate. Just when it seems like no more suffering can rain down on the Batistes, the “whirlwind” comes in the form of Katrina, reminding them of the uncontrollable power of the natural world and the mythic proportions of their own seemingly ordinary, squalid lives. In using the myth of Job as an outline for the sufferings of her characters, Ward lends mythic gravity to the Batiste’s situation—and the ravaged lives of all the families like them who must also face down the whirlwind.
Ward’s novel is lyrical, dense, and suffused with references to mythical stories of suffering, pain, betrayal, and loss. In using myth to chart the outline of Salvage the Bones, Ward creates a story of her own which smacks of legend; indeed, as Katrina stories have proliferated through the years, and the horrors of the storm have been held up as pleas for attention to climate change and as emblems of the ways federal systems fail marginalized and minority populations in the wake of devastating loss, the story of Katrina has become a myth in and of itself—one which begs to be heeded.
Myth Quotes in Salvage the Bones
The puppy is pure white. She is her mother in miniature. But while her mother moans, she is silent. Skeetah bends over her. The other puppies are opening their jaws, twitching legs. We're all sweating so badly we look like we just ran into the shed from a hard, heavy summer rain. But Skeet is shaking his head, and I don't know if it's all sweat or if he's crying. He blinks. He scrapes his pointer over the pure white skull, down the puppy's chest and her belly. Her mouth opens and her belly inflates. She is her mother’s daughter. She is a fighter. She breathes.
In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone that I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. Medea sneaks Jason things to help him: ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She has magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two. I know her.
I push with my hands, and it will not sink to dense pearls like fat. It pushes back, water flush and warm. I unpin my shirt. We all share clothes, so it's mostly men's T-shirts for me, loose jeans and cotton shorts. They cannot tell, but it is there. Perhaps Skeetah saw when I walked from the water and put on my clothes. I do not know, but I will not give him the chance to see again now. I will not let him see until none of us have any choices about what can be seen, what can be avoided, what is blind, and what will turn us to stone.
The blood on Daddy’s shirt is the same color as the pulpy puppy in China's mouth. China flings it away from her. It thuds on the tin and slides. Randall comes running. Big Henry kneels with Daddy in the dirt, where what was Daddy's middle, ring, and pinkie finger on his left hand are sheared off clean as fallen tree trunks. The meat of his fingers is red and wet as China's lips.
Skeetah kneels in the dirt, feeling for the mutilated puppy; he knocks into metal drums and toolboxes and old chainsaws with his head and his shoulders.
"Why did you?" Skeetah wails.
"Why?" Daddy breathes to Randall and Big Henry standing over him, the blood sluicing down his forearm. They are gripping Daddy's wrist, trying to stop the bleeding. Skeetah is punching the metal he meets. China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?
I try to read the entire mythology book, but I can’t. I am stuck in the middle. When I put the book down and wipe my wet face and breathe in my morning breath, ripe to the afternoon under the sheet, this is where I have stopped. Medea kills her brother. In the beginning, she is known by her nephew, who tells the Argonauts about her, for having power, for helping her family, just like I tried to help Skeet on the day China first got sick from the Ivomec. But for Medea, love makes help turn wrong. The author says that there are a couple of different versions of how it happened. One says she lies to her brother and invites him onto the ship with the Argonauts as they were feeing, and that Jason ambushes him. That she watched her brother die, her own face on his being sliced open like a chicken: pink skin cut to bloody meat. The other version says that she kills her brother herself, that her brother runs away with her and the Argonauts, assuming that he is safe, and that she chops him into bits: liver, gizzard, breast and thigh, and throws each part overboard so that her father, who is chasing them, slows down to pick up each part of his son. I read it over and over again. It is like she is under the covers with me, both of us sweating to water.
I listen for the boys and the dogs somewhere out in these woods, but all I can hear is the pine trees shushing each other, the oak bristling, the magnolia leaves hard and wide so that they sound like paper plates clattering when the wind hits them, this wind snapping before Katrina somewhere out there in the Gulf coming like the quiet voice of someone talking before they walk through the doorway of a room.
A cloud passes over the sun, and it is dark under the trees. It passes, and the gold melts through the leaves, falls on bark and floor: foil coins. Soon we reach a curtain of vines, which hang from the lowest branches to the needle-carpeted earth, and we crawl. Skeetah dusts China's breasts off, waves us on. We have been walking for a long time when I hear the first tiny bark.
"You tired?" Randall asks.
"No," I say. My stomach feels full of water, hurts with it, but I will not tell him that. I push aside a branch, let it go, but it still scratches my arm. 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, the wind. Where death was as many as the fish waiting in the water, fanning fins, watching the surface, shad- owing the bottom dark. China barks as if she is answering the dog.
[Manny] stops in profile. His nose is like a knife.
“And?” His hair grows so fast it's already starting to curl. Sweat beads at his hairline.
Manny shakes his head. The knife cuts. The sweat rolls down his scar, is flung out onto the rotten asphalt.
"I ain’t got nothing here," he says. Manny blinks at me when he says it. Looks at me head-on, for the second time ever. "Nothing."
Nothing. For some reason I see Skeetah when I blink, Skeetah kneeling next to China, always kneeling, always stroking and loving and knowing her. Skeetah's face when he stood across from Rico, when he told China, Make them know.
I am on him like China.
I am slapping him, over and over, my hands a furry, a black blur. His face is hot and stinging as boiling water.
"Hey! Hey!" Manny yells. He blocks what he can with his elbows and forearms, but still I snake through. I slap so hard my hands hurt.
"I love you!"
"Esch!" The skin on his throat is red, his scar white.
"I loved you!" I hit his Adam's apple with the V where my thumb and pointer
finger cross. He chokes.
"I loved you!" This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting. I rake my fingernails across his face, leave pink scratches that turn red, fill with blood.
I kick, grasping at the air, but the hurricane slaps me, and I land in the water on my back, the puppies flying out of the bucket, their eyes open for the first time to slits and, I swear, judging me as they hit.
"Esch!" Randall yells, and Junior tightens his legs like a looping shoestring across Randall's waist. Randall grips Junior's shins, those legs thin as rulers. Randall cant jump in. "Swim!" he screams.
I kick my legs and palm water, but I can barely keep my head above it. It is a fanged pink open mouth, and it is swallowing me.
"Fuck!" Skeetah yells. He looks down at China, who is thrusting up and against his sling.
"Esch!" Junior screams, and the water is dragging me sideways, away from the window, out into the yard, toward the gullet of the Pit. I snatch at the puppy closest to me, the brindle, which is limp in my hand, and shove it down my shirt. The white and the black-and-white have disappeared.
"Fuck!" Skeetah screams. He grabs China’s head, whispers something to her as she scrabbles against him. Her teeth show and she jerks backward away from him. She writhes. Her torso is out of the sling he has made. Skeetah grabs China by the head and pulls and her body comes out and she is scrambling. She flies clear of him, twists in the air to splash belly first in the water. She is already swimming, fighting.
I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.