Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones Themes

Memory and Ghosts

As Esch attempts to make sense of her changing world—particularly her changing pregnant body—she frequently consults her own memories of her mother for guidance. This is particularly evident as Esch searches for eggs in her yard, as she associates the egg hunt with memories of her mother teaching her how to find the best eggs. In these moments, Esch's narration flirts with the idea that, much like the contrast between the hen's eggs and the invisible eggs in her own belly, her mother's presence straddles the boundary between material and immaterial. These explorations of the lingering presence of the deceased are deeply in touch with the Southern Gothic genre of the novel, and especially with the William Faulkner novels to which Esch alludes in the very first chapter. Frequently, Esch and her siblings also differ on their memories of Mama (her final words to them, for example), creating the sense that a person's history—perhaps even his or her very existence—is fluid and open to interpretation.

Prophets and Clairvoyance

Various characters in the novel seem to possess the power to see beyond the physical world. This ability originates in Skeetah when he expresses the idea that he reeks of death after killing China's puppy. Later, Skeetah will further prove in touch with the supernatural as he chants rhythmically to China, coaching her for her last fight: "Leave them shaking, China, make them love you, China, make them need you, China" (171). Junior also exhibits prophetic traits; for example, his fear of bathing foreshadows the destructive power of water later embodied by Hurricane Katrina. Eventually, the power to see into the future is assigned to China, since Esch believes that China literally predicted a tree falling into Daddy's room. This ability to prophesize ties into the ominous and foreboding tone of the novel, often expressed through the personification of Esch's environment such that it seems to possess the power (or lack thereof) to see; for example, Esch imagines that a rabbit's giant black eye is "seeing something supernatural" (71).

Womanhood as Inherently Violent

Esch frequently dwells on the notion that femininity is inherently tied to violence. In her daydreams, this is best embodied by her obsession with the myth of Medea and Jason, to which she believes her relationship with Manny is inherently linked. By invoking the violence of Medea, who famously killed her own children to get revenge on her cheating lover, Esch suggests a framework for understanding her own power as a new mother. This perspective is heightened by her understanding of China, the only other female being in Esch's male-dominated environment, as a fierce, almost superhuman, mother and lover, a conclusion that is supported by China's vicious encounters with her own puppies and with Kilo, the canine equivalent of Esch's male betrayer, Manny.


Mythology plays a significant role in Esch's understanding of her own world, providing a fantastical framework through which she can process the realities of her own womanhood, love life, and future. Allusions to mythological characters like Eurydice and Artemis punctuate Esch's narration throughout the novel and constitute a layer of fantasy on which Esch depends to escape her own gritty reality. Medea and Jason's story is by far the most dominant myth guiding Esch's decisions about her love life and pregnancy. In tying her relationship with Manny to that of Medea and Jason, she positions herself as both destined for betrayal and as the ultimate victor.

Creation and Apocalypse

The Biblical story of Creation is baked into the novel's structure, as Ward separates the narrative into twelve consecutive days, much like the seven days of Creation in the Book of Genesis. However, this allusion to creation and life sharply contrasts the destruction of life that will accompany the impending hurricane. This tension is at the core of the novel, particularly regarding Esch's pregnancy, which will usher new life into the world even in the wake of extreme destruction.

Strength and Weakness

This novel dwells on the question of strength and weakness in relation to gender, asking once and for all who is stronger: men or women. Esch engages this question when she physically attacks Manny, emerging from the fight victorious just as China did when fighting Kilo, a connection that Esch makes explicit by narrating, "I am on him like China" (203). This reversal of the stereotypical male-female dynamic defines Esch's emergence as not only the more vicious fighter, but also the stronger, more mature party in her affair with Manny. In fact, as the novel progresses, its scant female characters seem to grow stronger as their male counterparts grow weaker. This is most poignantly embodied in Skeetah's relationship with China, which often verges on romantic. Ultimately, although Esch continually compares Skeetah to knives, he grows weaker without the love of his life, China, who is consistently described as the strongest of her kind. Of course, the hurricane exhibits the ultimate power in the novel, proving beyond doubt that women are more vicious than men, an idea most poignantly communicated through Daddy's original statement on the storm, "Like the worst, she's a woman. Katrina" (124).

Visible and Invisible

Esch plays with the theme of vision—and the lack thereof—throughout the novel by situating the various forces that threaten her sense of order just below the surface, unseen. This is most explicitly developed in her musings about her reproductive system, in which she compares her own body's eggs (invisible) to the larger hen's eggs for which she searches in her yard. In turn, this invisible threat of pregnancy is linked to the most threatening force of all: the hurricane, which is often easy to doubt, as it too is invisible—at least until it is too late. Esch's narration flirts with these correlations throughout the novel, using imagery relating to vision, such as that of the "blind house with closed eyes" and the rabbit with "one large black eye" (70-71). As invisible menaces threaten to change everything, Esch braces herself for the ways in which her familiar, visible environment will be altered.