Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward’s second novel and the recipient of the 2011 National Book Award.
Deeply in dialogue with the Southern Gothic genre, Ward's narrative functions as a gritty yet dreamy first-person account of Hurricane Katrina's impact on a black family in the American South, told through the eyes of its 15-year-old matriarch, Esch. The novel is set in the fictional Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, which is based on Ward’s hometown, De Lisle, Mississippi. Several aspects of the story were inspired by Ward’s real-life experiences, from the impending hurricane (Ward experienced Hurricane Katrina firsthand) to China, the pit bull that the narrator’s brother, Skeetah, raises (Ward’s father raised and fought pit bulls).
Ward chose to set the novel in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina partially because she felt the natural disaster had “receded from public consciousness,” and partially in answer to those who had publicly criticized survivors of the storm for resisting evacuation.
Frequently invoking themes of survival and apocalypse, Ward was strongly influenced by Biblical allegory and Southern Gothic writers such as William Faulkner. It was in appealing to such genres, and particularly in weaving Greek mythology into the main character’s story, that Ward sought to situate her own writing as part of the larger Western literary tradition, a canon from which she often felt excluded as a female, African-American writer (The Paris Review).
“I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South,” Ward said in her acceptance speech at the 2011 National Book Awards, “so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs” (Lyceum Agency).
The book was published in 2011 to wide acclaim from critics; Parul Sehgal of The New York Times wrote, “Jesmyn Ward makes beautiful music, plays deftly with her reader’s expectations: where we expect violence, she gives us sweetness. When we brace for beauty, she gives us blood” ("Surviving Katrina").