Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones Summary and Analysis of Chapter 12


As the storm calms itself, the family cowers in the torn-open attic of Papa Joseph and Mama Lizbeth’s house. Skeetah is wracked with guilt over losing track of China and promises to look for her once the water level lowers to halfway up the tires on Daddy’s tractor. Esch comforts him by squeezing him as hard as she has embraced the boys she’s had sex with, trying to keep him in one piece. She notices the entire family is bloodied from the broken glass and debris flying about.

Once the water level is low enough, Skeetah jumps in and begins to look for China, convinced she’s waiting for him. Esch watches him until he disappears behind a fallen tree.

Later, the family follows suit and revisits their house, searching for food like they had searched for eggs in the yard days earlier. They find canned peas and packages of ramen. Randall decides the family will stay with Big Henry, and they head towards town.

The houses of Bois Sauvage are in varying states of destruction, and the townspeople gather in the street, each one muttering something about being alive. Big Henry’s house has miraculously been spared, the trees having fallen in a fence around the building. Marquise and Big Henry greet Esch and her family; they were just about to come looking for them. Big Henry plays with a machete they were bringing in case they had to “cut through” to find them (242).

Suddenly, Esch spots Manny, who sits in the bed of a pickup truck with Shaliyah. Randall asks Esch if Manny is the father of her child, and she nods. Randall promises to beat up Manny, but Esch replies that she already did. Randall and Junior, who rides piggyback on Randall, comfort Esch as they take shelter in Big Henry’s house.

Big Henry’s mother, Ms. Bernadine, tends to Daddy’s hand. Marquise takes his dog to look for Skeetah, who refuses to leave the Pit with him. That night, the family—minus Skeetah—sleeps soundly.

In the morning, Esch is eavesdropping on Big Henry’s uncle, Solly, who tells Ms. Bernadine about the terrible damage near the bayou, when Daddy asks Esch if she’s really pregnant. She nods. Daddy apologizes for pushing her and says they’ll have to see a doctor to make sure the baby is healthy. Esch daydreams about the past and the future, envisioning her mother on the couch aside Daddy and picturing Junior feeding the baby. She decides to name the baby after her mother if it is a girl, and after Skeetah if it is a boy.

Big Henry invites the kids to drive with him to St. Catherine to inspect the damage. When they arrive, they can barely comprehend the scene. Hardly any trees or buildings stand; the elementary school where Randall played basketball and Skeetah fought Rico is leveled. People take shelter under makeshift tents and forage for food and supplies in the wreckage. A toothy woman warns them not to drive any further towards the beach, and then she asks them for food. Esch gives her some ramen, and the woman laughs.

The kids pull over, park, and begin walking. Esch sees a man holding his head and perhaps crying. He is sitting on a sofa next to a black casket, which a dog sniffs at and even urinates on. Still walking, the kids find what remains of the liquor store and happen upon some untouched liquor bottles, which they take for Daddy.

Big Henry squats next to Esch and tells her he heard her talking to Daddy about being pregnant. He asks her who the father is, to which she replies, “It don’t have a daddy” (254). He says she’s wrong, because the baby has many fathers, including him. He reassures her that she can rely on him. This touches Esch, who is gathering pieces of glass that will serve as souvenirs when she tells her baby about Hurricane Katrina. She imagines hanging them above her bed and telling the baby a mythologized story about the storm, a mother who slaughtered and destroyed the Gulf.

After bathing with a glass of water each and eating for the first time since the storm, Esch, Randall, Junior, and Big Henry return to the Pit to see Skeetah. He has built a fire that burns tall and is still waiting for China. He refuses to leave in case she returns, despite the others’ protests.

Esch knows that she and her siblings will stay by his side, waiting for China. She knows that China will return, and she pictures Skeetah crying when she comes, melting away to nothing. Esch knows that China will see her and understand that she has fought and protected—that she herself is a mother now.


In this chapter, Esch builds on the imagery of her brothers and father as strong, metallic, and even sharp, noticing now the ways in which they are growing soft. As Skeetah processes the loss of China at the start of the chapter, Esch likens his body under her embrace to a “school of fish” moving past a rock, noticing the “thin wake” that he leaves as he walks through the water (239-40). At both the start and end of the chapter, Esch imagines Skeetah’s coming apart, later comparing his skin to a T-shirt, “like he could pull who he is off and become something else” (257). Esch sees Daddy softening too, imagining a wire that “had seemed to line his bones before the accident, before the hurricane, that made him so tall when he stood next to Mama” becoming string” (248). At the same time, Esch begins to conceive of herself as stronger, imagining that she is the rock around which a school of fish swims. Whereas the men she admires are growing weaker in certain ways after the chaos, Esch uses the disaster to grow stronger, becoming the rock of the family.

As Esch surveys the damage from Hurricane Katrina, she continually likens her environment to the carelessly strewn playthings of a child. Waiting for the storm to calm down, Esch likens the movements of a tree in the wind to a child playing hopscotch, and likens her soggy living room to a messy doll’s house. Later, the semi trucks overturned in St. Catherine remind her of Legos. Even the houses that have been wrenched from their foundations and thrown into the middle of streets and train tracks appear to Esch like “a steel necklace with wooden beads” (252). Katrina’s arrival functions like a rebirth in this way, ushering Esch’s environment into a new era much like a child does for its family.

This theme of rebirth and renewal runs deep throughout this chapter, as Esch envisions the hurricane as an event of epic proportions that has severed her future from her past. Looking at the now-leveled elementary school where Randall played basketball a few days earlier, Esch narrates, “suddenly there is a great split between now and then, and I wonder where the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it” (251). Here, Esch positions Katrina as an upheaval that is both destructive and renewing, much like the childbirths that Esch recalls and forecasts throughout the novel. Moreover, her diction, particularly the word “split,” echoes previous imagery describing births as ruptures; in fact, the very first sentence in the novel characterizes China’s childbirth as her body “turning in on itself” (6). In this way, Esch envisions the hurricane as the closing of one chapter and the opening of another, much like her own future as a mother.

Perhaps most importantly, Esch uses Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath to opt into a new role as mother and storyteller. Converting tragedy into mythology, she elevates Katrina to the level of epic mythological figure with a “chariot so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons” (255). This harkens back to the start of the chapter, when Esch likened the debris in the yard across which Skeetah swims to find China to a labyrinth, invoking the story of Theseus. In weaving her community’s wreckage into a legible, even epic, story, she finds a way to not only survive, but also engage with the tradition of storytelling that already exists in her family; indeed, when she vows to tell her child the story of Katrina, she compares that act of passing down wisdom to the way Skeetah told her about Mama’s last words, not to mention the way Mama told Esch about the hurricanes that came before Katrina. This is how Esch’s obsession with Medea and mythology comes full circle—she will transcend comparisons to violent mythological characters and instead become a kind of matriarchal storyteller herself, passing down her own history much like the myth-tellers of ancient Greece.

Ultimately, Esch’s dependence on anaphora in the closing passage cements this new inheritance as matriarch. Echoing Skeetah’s anaphoric chants meant to prepare China for the kill before her dogfight earlier in the novel, Esch’s anaphora in the novel’s final passage indicates stability, positioning her as the rock to which she compares herself at the start of the chapter. Her last words, “She will know that I am a mother,” resound with the maturity and confidence that she will use to usher her family into its next chapter (258).