Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones Essay Questions

  1. 1

    In what ways does Esch's relationship to Manny mirror and/or diverge from the myth of Medea and Jason?

    Esch invokes the myth of Medea and Jason throughout the novel not only because it figures heavily in the book she's reading, but also because it offers a framework through which she can make sense of her relationship with Manny. Like Jason, Manny is fated to betray his lover, and like Medea, Esch will seek revenge by confronting and harming her lover; she also uses motifs like water to process her own pregnancy and its relationship to the coming storm. Departing with the legend of Medea, however, Esch will ultimately accept her lover's infidelity and rise above it, accepting help from loved ones around her. In many ways, Esch emerges as the victor of the conflict between her and Manny, because whereas he is cowardly and immature in avoiding the responsibility that accompanies his infidelity, Esch resists disrupting his life for sheer revenge, proving that she is too mature for the kind of dramatic and petty acts (like storms and bloodshed, for example) that define Greek mythology.

  2. 2

    Clairvoyance and prediction play a huge role in the novel. How does the ability of clairvoyance shift from one character to another and/or evolve during the course of the novel?

    At the start of the novel, both Skeetah and Daddy are the designated prophets of doom, as Daddy warns his children of the hurricane and Skeetah continually notices the foreboding tone surrounding the Pit. Often, Esch actually imbues her inanimate environment with the supernatural power of vision; for example when she describes Mama Lizbeth and Papa Joseph's house as a "blind house with closed eyes" (71), she is hyper-attuned with who can see and who cannot. As the storm envelops the house, however, Esch becomes convinced of China's clairvoyance, as the dog seems to predict the tree crashing into Daddy's room. In this way, the power to see and predict seems to shift from male characters to female characters.

  3. 3

    Esch and China share a complex relationship, distant and close at various times. How does this relationship evolve and what can we make of its conclusion?

    At the start of the novel, Esch regards China with distance and fear. At the same time, China dominates Esch's daydreams and musings, contributing significantly to her changing idea of what it means to be a mother. Like Medea, China acts as an almost mystical presence in Esch's life, as Esch assigns her a complex emotional life, particularly in relation to Kilo, the dog that impregnated China; her viciousness in the last round of the dogfight, for example, derives, according to Esch, from a kind of vengeful ferocity that all mothers possess. This sense that China is somehow supernatural is perpetuated by Esch and Skeetah's obsession with the whiteness of her fur, which could be understood as a reference to the mythic whiteness of Moby Dick, another ferocious and mysterious creature. In the end, Esch comes to believe literally in China's psychic abilities when the dog seems to predict the tree falling into Daddy's room. In the final passages of the novel, Esch seems to elevate herself to China's level, expecting China to acknowledge her as a sister because she will know that Esch is a mother. In this way, China acts as a benchmark for Esch's personal growth, allowing Esch to envision herself as an epic creature in her own right even in her absence.

  4. 4

    This novel is deeply in dialogue with other Southern Gothic works of literature. How does it build on and/or depart from this tradition?

    Early in the novel, Esch recalls reading William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, one of the most iconic Southern Gothic novels ever written. Like the characters in several Faulkner novels, Esch's life is populated by ghosts, particularly that of her mother, into whom Esch frequently breathes life by recalling the lessons Mama taught her. The novel is also grounded in a foreboding tone and gritty setting that is native to the Southern Gothic genre. Everything around Esch seems simultaneously dead and alive; for example, she compares the old machinery in her yard to rotting carcasses, an image that is drawn out even further at the end of the novel when Esch turns the comparison back on herself and her family, calling them "human debris" (237). However, it is also notable that the Southern Gothic genre is most often used to characterize novels written by white authors; Toni Morrison, for example, is more often described as an African-American author than as a Southern Gothic writer, even though her novels are legendary in their ability to breathe life into the ghosts of the post-Antebellum American South. In this way, Ward's novel likewise tugs at the boundaries of the Southern Gothic genre, perhaps pushing it towards a more inclusive definition.

  5. 5

    How does the novel treat the concepts of destiny, foreshadowing, and agency? Is Esch destined to become her mother?

    Throughout the novel, various characters act as vessels for foreshadowing, especially Skeetah and China, who both verge on psychic at various times. This atmosphere of prediction would appear to lend itself to a world in which people have little agency, and indeed, we understand from the beginning that Hurricane Katrina's landfall is inevitable, and therefore that the fate of Bois Sauvage is predestined. Even Esch's love affair with Manny seems doomed from the start, as she continually uses Medea's relationship with Jason, which famously ends in betrayal and revenge, as a guide. But that Esch leans so heavily on Greek mythology at all brings the dichotomy between destiny and agency to the forefront, since the Greek gods are known for striking a balance between omnipotence and humanity. In actually choosing to use Medea's story as a template for her own love affair, Esch demonstrates both destiny and agency, as she chooses her own doom. Ultimately, Esch chooses to be like her mother by choosing to keep her baby, a decision that allows her to engage with a female lineage of which she is proud.

  6. 6

    The novel is obviously based on true events. Does that change the way we read it, especially regarding its structure and foreshadowing?

    In approaching the novel, we understand from the beginning that Hurricane Katrina will function as part of the climax. In this way, the premise of the novel effectively foreshadows itself, much like Esch's obsession with Medea and Jason predestines her for betrayal. This sense of destiny is also built into a structure that alludes to the seven days of creation, at the end of which, we realize, will come the Fall of Adam and Eve. It is through these baked-in instances of foreshadowing that we can read Ward's novel as a statement on destiny, as it suggests that its characters have little agency in the face of a large-scale natural disaster. However, this idea exists in tension with Esch's ultimate decision to convert such tragedy into a story that can be passed down through the generations—an act of agency that constitutes a small victory for the victims of Katrina.

  7. 7

    At times in the novel, Skeetah's relationship to China borders on being romantic, and even sexual. How does this strange relationship comment on the other relationships in the book (that of Esch and Manny, for example)?

    Oddly, Skeetah and China's relationship is one of the most functional and committed relationships in the novel. Esch's affair with Manny is doomed to fail from the beginning, especially because Esch often compares it to Medea and Jason's myth of betrayal and revenge. But Skeetah at once cares for China "like a man focuses on a woman when he feels that she is his" and respects her power to both nurture and destroy (8). This sharply contrasts with Esch's relationship with Manny, as he discounts her power until her fingernails are dug deep in his skin and, indirectly, discounts even her care for the life inside her by calling her a slut. Indeed, Skeetah's patience in the closing passages of the novel, combined with Esch's imagery of him shedding his skin and shriveling into nothing but a "heart of stone," provides a sense of stability that restores a much-needed order to the chaos that Hurricane Katrina has produced (257).

  8. 8

    Does the novel argue that there is a firm and inherent division in the nature of men and women? Who emerges as the stronger gender in the end?

    Ward's novel is frequently a tug of war between the genders. Esch's environment is fueled by machismo and testosterone, surrounded as she is by men. Skeetah, for example, is often likened to blades, and Manny is often compared to celestial bodies like the sun. Esch, however, likewise looks to strong female role models for guidance, drawing on the examples of Medea and even China. Medea, who famously seeks revenge on her unfaithful lover, continually speaks to Esch as a case for female ferocity. Later, the dogfight between Kilo and China serves as the ultimate performance of female strength, as China counters a direct assault on her femininity—Kilo's attack on her milk-filled breast—by bringing Kilo within inches of his death. Indeed, this larger shift towards female strength is aided by descriptions of Randall as increasingly soft, whereas he often serves as an anchor to the whole family earlier in the story. In the novel's final scene, Esch acknowledges China as a sister, elevating femininity as the ultimate source of rebirth—literally and figuratively—after Hurricane Katrina asserts herself as yet another strong woman in Esch's life.

  9. 9

    To what extent and in what ways is Mama a ghostly, almost physical presence in Esch's life?

    Esch's recollections of her mother often verge on physical reincarnations. Most often, Esch's memories of Mama come alive in the form of lessons, as Mama taught her everything from how to care for a wound to how to search for food in their own backyard. Other times, Esch actually envisions Mama as if she were still a living part of the family, imagining her in the doorway or laying on Daddy's lap after the hurricane. In fact, Esch continually links Mama to the tangible, remembering, for example, the texture of the scar on Mama's hand. Even though she is deceased, Mama speaks to Esch often, reminding her of the difference between men and women, between a rainstorm and a hurricane. In a novel grounded in the gritty, physical realities of everyday life and loss, Mama's presence is always approaching tangibility for Esch. Ultimately, Junior serves as a living piece of Mama, as does Esch, whom Skeetah believes is Mama's spitting image.

  10. 10

    How does the frailty of human memory color the novel's statements on tragedy, tradition, and storytelling?

    Memory, particularly as it shapes Esch's concept of her mother, plays a significant role in her and her family's lives. Esch often recalls her mother's lessons, such as how to care for a wound or how to search for eggs. In these recollections, Esch's accounts of her mother are tactile and depend heavily on imagery like the color of Mama's skin or the texture of her scar. In this way, Esch's memories build a physical portrait of Mama that feels almost as tangible as if she were physically present. Later, however, Esch disagrees with Skeetah on a memory of their mother; while he remembers Mama telling them she loved them on her way to the hospital where she would die, Esch does not. Memory, therefore, is established as an alternately concrete and malleable force. Ultimately, Esch vows to tell the story of Hurricane Katrina to her child, building on her family's tradition of female storytelling and affirming memory's role in her lineage.