The story of Salvage the Bones is ultimately the story of one impoverished family’s struggle for survival. While the approach of Hurricane Katrina galvanizes the Batistes against one very large and very real threat, even on ordinary days Esch, her Daddy, and her siblings are barely getting by, eager for new ways to reverse their fates and keep their clan together. From Skeetah’s scheme to sell off China’s puppies to the four siblings’ organized raids on the houses of their nearby, better-off neighbors, the novel is full of the Batiste family’s increasingly desperate search for ways to survive in the unforgiving social, economic, and physical landscape they call home. As the novel progresses and Ward strips more and more away from her characters, saddling them with larger and more pressing horrors and traumas, Ward ultimately suggests that poverty is a vicious cycle of Job-like proportions; one that the Batistes might be able to survive, but will never be able to escape.
Ward suffuses the novel with vivid, uncompromising visual descriptions of the poverty in which the Batistes live. She does so in order to create a stifling atmosphere and stress how devoid the Batistes’ lives are of joy and ease; their whole world centers around surviving on the forgotten piece of land they have been left. Their house is situated on a spit of land called the Pit—a fifteen-acre plot inherited from their deceased mother’s deceased parents. The Pit has largely been stripped of any beauty and resources it once had, the rich red clay sold off to wealthier white neighbors for cash. Though there were once fields and vegetable gardens all over the Pit, now it is barren and overgrown with weeds. The watering hole that Esch and her siblings swim in during the summer is “the color of a scab,” and their own house is so dilapidated and in need of repairs that they are forced to salvage the “bones” of their grandparents’ abandoned old house nearby for wood, nails, pipes, and other necessities. The Batistes, at the start of the novel, are in various stages of striving and denial about their impoverished situation. While Daddy drinks constantly, mutters about the impending storm, and delegates survival prep to his four children, the intrepid Skeetah—the second-youngest—is determined to turn things around for his family. His prize fighting dog China has just had a litter of puppies—out of the pups that are born only four survive, and Skeetah is desperate to keep them alive for just six weeks until they can be sold for 200 dollars each. The money would allow their family to eat something other than canned food and ramen noodles. It would also allow Randall, the eldest, to pursue his dreams of playing basketball, and the youngest, Junior, to know something other than constant hunger.
At the center of all of this is Esch, newly pregnant, to whom “survival” means something slightly different than it does to the rest of her family. Esch is responsible now not just for her own survival, but for the survival of her unborn child; she toys with the idea of trying to abort the child by throwing herself to the ground from a high place or mixing up a strange brew, hoping to have one less thing to worry about, but ultimately decides—more out of inaction than anything else—to remain pregnant. Esch’s survival, then, becomes about protecting her secret for as long as she can—being discovered carries the nebulous threat of punishment, humiliation, and being seen as weak in the eyes of her all-male family. For Esch to be found out would mean for her to become a liability to her family; their whole world is about surviving, and another mouth to feed would stretch them beyond capacity. Furthermore, though it’s not ever fully articulated, Esch’s pregnancy represents an even darker threat to her own survival—her own mother died in childbirth shortly after Esch’s younger brother Junior came into the world, and Esch carries with her the trauma of knowing that childbirth represents an even deeper endangerment of her own life, and of her family’s ability to shoulder yet another emotional trauma.
In the end, the Batistes—having faced down a slew of harrowing physical, emotional, and financial trials culminating in the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, a vicious storm that washes away their pets, their belongings, and parts of their home—have survived. However, what their survival means is that they will have to find a way to carry on and continue attempting to pull themselves up out of the deep valley of poverty and neglect they’ve fallen into; their struggles are not yet over, and the hardest work they’ve ever done is yet to come as they face down rebuilding their lives despite their physically and emotionally weakened states. As Ward grimly foreshadows their inability to escape their circumstances, she makes a bleak prediction about the systemic vortex of poverty in America: for a disproportionate number of unlucky, marginalized families, survival—the bare minimum—is the only reward for all their suffering.
Poverty and Survival ThemeTracker
Poverty and Survival 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.
"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."
"You ran slow yesterday."
I hold the bandage close. Skeetah grabs a rusty safety pin from off the sink and pins it shut.
"Only in the beginning," I say.
"I don't know." The light is creeping into the bathroom like fog. Skeetah pulls his shirt back over his head, looks down at my body to my chest, my stomach, my feet. What does he know? I shift, barely help myself from folding my arms.
"Maybe you’re gaining weight."
"You’re saying I'm fat?" I am trying not to cry. I don’t want him to know, but I can’t tell him, because I can’t say it. I haven’t said it to myself yet, out loud. Just chased it around in my head since I saw the lines.
"No," Skeet says. “Just growing up, maybe."
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.
"I ain’t saying [she] weak." Manny still hasn't looked at me. "But you know China ain’t as boss as she used to be."
"What?" Skeetah's tendons are showing.
“Any dog give birth like that is less strong after. Even if you don’t think it. Take a lot out of an animal to nurse and nurture like that. Price of being female." Finally Manny glances at me. It slides over me like I'm glass.
Skeetah laughs. It sounds as if it's hacking its way out of him.
"You serious? That's when they come into they strength. They got something to protect." He glances at me, too, but I feel it even after he looks away. "That's power."
China is licking Skeetah's hand like she licks the puppies. Skeetah pushes her head away but she keeps at it, and he looks away from Manny. The tendons in his neck smooth. The menace leaves him; if he were a dog, his hair would flatten.
"To give life"—Skeetah bends down to China, feels her from neck to jaw, caresses her face like he would kiss her; she flashes her tongue—"is to know what's worth fighting for. And what’s love." Skeetah rubs down her sides, feels her ribs.
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.
"It's salty. Taste like pecans. And if worse comes to worst, we can eat like China." Skeetah rubs China from her shoulders to her neck, up along her razor jaw, and holds her face, which goes wrinkly with the skin smashed forward. It looks like he is pulling her to him for a kiss. She squints. I want to kick her. Randall shoulders his box, grabs the ramen box from me, and turns to walk into the house. Junior is tying his cord around an old lawn mower now, pulling at it like he's playing tug-of-war. The sun shines, blazes like fire, funnels down in the gaps between the trees, and lights up Skeetah and China so that they glow, each kneeling before the other, eyes together. Skeetah has already forgotten the conversation, and China never heard it.
"We ain't no dogs," Randall says. “And you ain't either."
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.
"Who the daddy?" Big Henry asks. There is no blazing fire to his eyes, no cold burning ice like Manny's. Only warmth, like the sun on the best fall days when the few leaves that will turn are starting and the air is clear and cloudless.
"It don’t have a daddy," I say.
"You wrong," Big Henry says. He looks away when he says it, out to the gray Gulf. There is a car out there in the shallows of the water. The top gleams red. "This baby got a daddy Esch." He reaches out his big soft hand, soft as the bottom of his feet probably, and helps me stand. "This baby got plenty daddies."
I smile with a tightening of my cheek. My eyes feel wet. I swallow salt.
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.