Esch lives in a Darwinian world where survival is key. This becomes especially obvious when Hurricane Katrina sweeps in and raises the stakes in the game of survival. The clearest personal instance of this conflict comes when Skeetah has to convince his family to allow China and her puppies to stay in their house during the storm; we later understand how vital this decision was when Skeetah and Esch hear a dog howling outside their house as the hurricane encroaches. As evidenced by this quotation, Skeetah believes that every creature deserves a chance (though this conviction can be disrupted by Skeetah's literally dog-eat-dog enthusiasm for dogfighting). Later, this idea will come to a head when Daddy pushes Esch from the tree trunk as they try to reach safety, thereby endangering not only her, but also her unborn baby and the innocent puppies she carries.
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 the 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.
The myth of Medea and Jason injects itself into nearly every aspect of Esch's love life and pregnancy. In this quotation, she explicitly identifies with Medea for the first time, lending the reader insight into what attracts Esch to this character. Esch sympathizes with Medea precisely because Madea’s supernatural abilities as a sorceress cannot save her from heartbreak, a situation with which Esch is all too familiar. Esch seems to understand her own power as a mother, lover, and fighter, as she often identifies with China in her potential to conflate love and sex with violence (evidenced when she digs her fingernails into Manny's perfect skin). All the same, she understands that, regardless of her own power as a woman, she will remain vulnerable to heartbreak.
Bodies tell stories.
Throughout the novel, Esch fixates on the various ways in which her body and those around her constitute a living record of their history together. True, Esch's bodily changes take center stage in the novel, as she witnesses her own body, normally lean and athletic, change into that of a mother. However, she also identifies numerous stories in the bodies of her brothers, her father, and even Big Henry and Manny. Perhaps the most dramatic bodily change is Daddy's injury, as he loses the finger on which he kept his wedding ring, speaking volumes about the pain he still feels in relation to the loss of his wife. But even Skeetah, who is often compared to a sharp knife or the razor blade he sometimes stores in his cheek, eventually dulls with the loss of China, his bodily angles lessening in severity as he mourns his lost love. China's body is another poignant image in service of this quotation, as she endures numerous wounds—including a damaged breast—while dogfighting. These wounds symbolize her struggle as a mother, lover, and fighter. Indeed, the same can be said of Esch's mother, who died in childbirth, leaving Junior, whom Esch continually likens to a blooming flower, as the living souvenir of her death.
The storm, it has a name now. Like the worst, she's a woman. Katrina.
As the only woman in a man's world, Esch can't help but wonder whether womanhood is necessarily linked to violence and destruction. When Daddy points out the gender of the storm, he feeds Esch's sense that, as her pregnancy unfolds, she is inheriting the feminine power to destroy. It is a question that Esch continues to explore throughout the novel, particularly in the form of her tortured relationship with Manny, her continual allusions to the story of Medea, and her observations of China's brutality towards her children and lover. At the close of the novel, Esch builds on this idea by indicating that she will pass on the story of Hurricane Katrina as "the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered," much like Esch as she rakes her fingernails through Manny's skin, or like China as she fights Kilo.
China white, he breathes, my China. Like bleach, China, hitting and turning them red and white, China. Like coca, China, so hard they breathe you up and they nose bleed, China. Make them runny, China, make insides outsides, China, make them think they snorted the razor, China. Leave them shaking, China, make them love you, China, make them need you, China, make them know even though they want to they can't live without you, China. My China, he mumbles: make them know, make them know, make them know.
In this passage, Skeetah draws from Biblical syntax to compose a pep talk that is epic in every sense of the word. Using cadence and grandiose imagery like "make insides outsides," Skeetah harkens to epic Biblical phraseology like, "Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low" (Isaiah 40:4). In concert with the parallelism of the passage (expressed by the constant repetition of the word "China"), this epic syntax positions China as a goddess on par with the mythological figures to which Esch looks for guidance (principally Medea), likewise situating Skeetah as a kind of mystical figure encouraging his woman to wreak havoc.
When Mama first explained to me what a hurricane was, I thought that all the animals ran away, that they fled the storms before they came, that they put their noses to the wind days before and knew...And maybe the bigger animals do. But now I think that other animals, like the squirrels and the rabbits, don't do that at all. Maybe the small don't run.
Esch struggles to navigate the power hierarchies of her world. In this passage, she admires the courage of the smaller animals that inhabit the land around her house: they resist evacuation even as the larger animals—in other words, the animals higher up on the food chain—flee from the hurricane. This observation can be understood as a symbol of the gritty determination possessed by her family and the rest of the black community in the face of extreme devastation, a quality that Esch contrasts with the privilege to evacuate, which is often reserved for wealthier—and whiter—populations in the region.
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.
In this passage, Esch vows to utilize the destruction that accompanies Hurricane Katrina by turning it into a story to pass down to her child. This is, of course, how Esch learned about hurricanes: by hearing about them from Mama. By recycling her newly broken environment—both literally, by turning the broken glass into an ornament, and figuratively, by turning Katrina into a story—Esch perpetuates a cycle of rebirth and survival that is built into her family's tradition, particularly into its female lineage.
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.
Esch's relationship to China varies throughout the novel, but remains importantly gendered. As the novel progresses, Esch increasingly gravitates toward the inherently violent nature of women, and of mothers in particular; this is embodied by the shared link she envisions between her, China, Medea, and Hurricane Katrina. By the novel's end, Esch awaits China's seemingly improbable return not only for Skeetah's sake, but also because she imbues China with a maternal power by which she, having embraced her own role as a mother, yearns to be acknowledged. Esch envisions herself as the new matriarch of the family, a position that was formerly China's. Whether or not China returns, Esch knows that she has become China's sister in the journey of motherhood.
I am on him like China.
In this passage, Esch explicitly links her vengeance on Manny to China's dogfighting. Throughout the novel, this potential for violence is linked to femininity, as Medea's murder, China's dogfighting, and Hurricane Katrina's destructive force all work to build a tradition of feminine violence. Here, Esch finally acts on her role within that tradition, hurting Manny the way only women—or perhaps more accurately, mothers—can.
I wonder if inside eggs, the kind that need the shelter of a body—horse eggs, pig eggs, human eggs—are so light. Would they look clear as jelly with firefly hearts, or would they look as solid and silent as stone? Would they show their mystery, or would they cover it like a secret? Would a human egg let itself be seen?
Eggs are a staple of Esch and her family's diet, but when Esch becomes pregnant, they also become the tangible subject of Esch's curiosity about her own reproductive system. Because her mother was the one to teach Esch how to look for eggs in her own yard, the hen's eggs that she and her brothers eat are inextricably linked to her own femininity from the start. When she becomes pregnant, Esch grows sensitive to the material nature of these eggs and is fascinated by their visibility, as she wishes her own reproductive system were not so mysterious to her. This yearning is deeply in tune with the absence of her mother, a figure symbolic of the gendered passing on of knowledge.
Salvage the Bones Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Salvage the Bones is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.