The Batiste children—Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior—are being raised in rural poverty, at the fringes of the remote Mississippi gulf town of Bois Sauvage. Nature is part of their lives in a ubiquitous and intimate way, and they are often required to live off the near-barren land around them in order to survive: grilling squirrels for meat, fighting dogs to make money, and finding what little joy and solace they can playing in the watering holes and forests of the Pit, the vast but sunken spit of land on which they live. As Salvage the Bones progresses towards its climax—the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the real-life category-five storm which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005 —and as the Batiste family desperately struggles to outwit the storm, Jesmyn Ward employs heavy dramatic irony to suggest that it is nature that controls humanity, not the other way around.
The entirety of the novel tilts towards the inevitable: the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The book’s chapters are divided up into days: twelve in all, which chart the approach and ultimately the arrival and aftermath (on days eleven and twelve) of the destructive storm. Ward plays upon her audience’s knowledge of the unspeakable devastation and irreparable damage Katrina brought—and the futility of all the Batiste’s attempts to prepare for the storm or control how it will affect them—in order to heighten dramatic tension as the novel unfolds. When rumors of Katrina start swirling on the radio, the only one who seems to listen to them is Esch’s Daddy. He urges his children to get to work preparing for the storm—rinsing out water jugs stored beneath the house, salvaging wood from the abandoned house that once belonged to Esch’s grandparents, and gathering foodstuffs and nonperishables. Most of the other characters, though, don’t believe the storm will really hit. Even though Daddy says he can feel the storm coming in his bones, his children have other things to worry about (Esch has her pregnancy, Skeetah has China, Randall has basketball), and they all put off storm preparations until the very last minute.
By the time the storm arrives, the Batistes have boarded up their house, brought the dogs inside, filled jugs and bathtubs with water, and stockpiled what little food they were able to find at the local store, though by the time Skeetah arrives the shelves have mostly been cleared. Still, he insists the paltry bounty he brings back will suffice. It is only once the storm hits in earnest—and a tree crashes through the ceiling of Daddy’s bedroom just as the water starts to rise—that Esch and her family realize just how puny and worthless their meager attempts at controlling how the storm will affect them have been. In the end, Esch and her family are forced to jump from their house and navigate rushing, rising waters as they make their way over to their deceased grandparents’ house—built on a slight incline, its attic is the only place on the Pit not totally submerged. As they huddle for warmth and safety while the wind howls and the rain pours, reckoning with the losses the storm has already brought (China and her three remaining puppies have been swept away), the truth of their inability to exert control over the natural world around them sinks in. The Batistes are condemned to take what they can get from the volatile land they call home—poverty has robbed them of any agency or ability to change their station, and they can control the whims of the land around them no more than they can control their sorry standing in life.
There are other uncontrollable elements of nature at work throughout the novel, too: most notably in the scenes which feature dogfighting. A reviled practice which is—unfortunately—accessible, lucrative, and often the only recourse some impoverished populations have, dogfighting is portrayed in the pages of Salvage the Bones as many things: a necessary evil, an ecstatic celebration of power, and a way for the human characters in the novel to attempt to eke out some measure of control over a threatening natural world. On the eighth day before the storm, Skeetah brings China to a dogfight, intending just to watch with her from the sidelines and remind all the other dogfighters in the neighborhood that China, despite having given birth recently, is stronger than ever. China has been subjected to a purely natural process—bearing puppies—but Skeetah is determined to show off how in-control he is of his dog and, by proxy, his fortunes. When a fight between two other dogs—with one of China’s puppies as the grand prize—ends in a tie, Skeetah decides to fight China after all; though she’s a mother, the dog she’ll be fighting is the father of her puppies, and according to Skeetah, China’s new status should make no difference. As China and Kilo begin their fight, their owners—Skeetah and Rico—cheer them on as they draw blood from one another. Ward’s narration of this scene is detailed, gory, and unforgiving; she is demonstrating the intense and brutal savagery that comes along with human attempts to control nature. In this case, the owners are attempting to egg their dogs on, rewarding their most dangerous, terrible behaviors; though viciousness is in the nature of every dog, to attack one of its kind relentlessly and on command is decidedly against nature. Showing this, Ward allows for the fact that human attempts to control nature will end if not in disappointment then in ugliness, violence, and gross perversions of the natural order.
As Ward examines the ways in which her characters try to assert dominance over nature, she provides one major arena in which they fail and one in which they succeed—at a terrible cost. The violence of the storm is almost, in the end, a kind of retribution or reassertion of power; the characters who have attempted to shirk the natural order and impose control over nature find themselves completely at its mercy, with all they know leveled to the ground at last by one of its most awesome and fearsome displays of dominance in recent history.
Nature and Control ThemeTracker
Nature and Control 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.
"You giving China a floor?" Daddy had started on our house once he and Mama got married. Hearing the stories about him and Papa Joseph when I was growing up, I always thought it was something a man did for a woman when they married: build her something to live in.
"No, Esch." Skeetah slices at the underside of the next tile with one of Daddy's rusty box cutters. "I'm saving them puppies. China's strong and old enough to where the parvo won’t kill her." He yanked. "They’re money."
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.
Daddy has only knocked down one of the chicken coop's walls. The chickens wander drunken and bewildered around his feet, seemingly mystified that he is dismantling their house, even though they haven’t roosted in it in years. In the half-light from the bulb from the shed and Daddy's headlights, they look black. Daddy lets his hammer fall, and the chickens scatter, fluttering away like leaves in a wind.
"The storm, it has a name now. Like the worst, she's a woman. Katrina."
"There's another storm?" Randall asks.
"What you think I been talking about? I knew it was coming," Daddy says. Like the worst, l repeat. A woman. He shakes his head, frowns at the coop. "We going to try something."
“I want you to get on my tractor and I’m going to direct you to this wall right here.” Daddy points at the longer wall. “And we going to knock this damn thing over.”
"Do it," Skeetah commands China.
China's ears are fat as plastic knives laid on her head and her mouth is wet and pink as uncooked chicken, except here the bone shows. She is quivering, her muscles beset by a multitude of tics. She is shaking all over, now eye to eye with Skeetah, seemingly ignoring the dirt-red puppy rounding her bowl, waddling for milk. He is the one that is a model of the father, of Kilo; he is the fattest, the most well fed, the bully. Turgid with the promise of living. When their eyes eventually open, I think that his will be the first.
The tractor idles and the engine turns, sounds as if it going to move.
"Don't do it!" Daddy yells against his tugging, but his grunts eat the Don't, and I don't know what Randall hears, but he lets up on the brake and slips it in gear, and the tractor eases forward. "Stop!" Daddy yells. He is pulling back, his hand clenched in the wire, and he twists so hard his arm looks long and ropy.
The red puppy creeps forward, rounds China's bowl, noses her tit. China is rolling, rising. The rumble of the tractor is her growl. Her toes are pointed, her head raised. Skeetah falls back. The red puppy undulates toward her; a fat mite. China snaps forward, closes her jaw around the puppy's neck as she does when she carries him, but there is no gentleness in it. She is all white eyes. She is chewing. She is whipping him through the air like a tire eaten too short for Skeetah to grab.
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 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.
Skeetah is squeezing China’s neck, murmuring in her ear. This time I cannot hear what he says. Skeetah is whispering so closely to China's ear I only catch half of his lips behind the red-veined white of her ear. Her breast drips blood. China licks Skeetah's cheek.
Rico stands, already smiling.
"Maybe I don't want the white [puppy]," Rico says. "Maybe I want the colored one that got more Kilo in it." He laughs.
Skeetah stands, and China, stout and white, looks up at him. "She fights," Skeetah says.
Randall pulls the stick from his shoulders, swings it around
to his front. "She's already fucked up enough," Randall says.
"Cuz, if she lost, she lost," Big Henry says, slowly, as if he is tasting the words.
"She didn’t lose," Skeetah breathes.
Mama had talked back to Elaine. Talked over the storm. Pulled us in in the midst of it, kept us safe. This secret that is no longer a secret in my body: Will I keep it safe? If I could speak to this storm, spell it harmless like Medea, would this baby, the size of my fingernail, my pinkie fingernail, maybe, hear? Would speaking make it remember me once it is born, make it know me? Would it look at me with Manny’s face, with his golden skin, with my hair? Would it reach out with its fingers, pink, and grasp?
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.
"She's going to come back to me," he says. "Watch.”
China. She will return, standing tall and straight, the milk burned out of her. She will look down on the circle of light we have made in the Pit, and she will know that I have kept watch, that I have fought. China will bark and call me sister. In the star-suffocated sky, there is a great waiting silence. She will know that I am a mother.