Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4


Esch swats at the fleas coating her legs as she walks the path to Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph’s old house, which is ripe with decay. After Esch’s grandparents died, her parents began harvesting their house, built on the same property as their own, for useful items, such as beds and kitchenware.

Inside, Skeetah tears out the house’s old linoleum floor to cover the dirt in the shed where China and her puppies live, which he believes is infested with parvo. Esch notices that Skeetah has also shaved his Afro down to nothing.

Skeetah asks Esch if she’ll help him with something that involves running in the woods behind their property, which surprises Esch, as Skeetah’s mind is usually on China. Before China gave birth to her litter, she remembers, the only time Skeetah spent apart from China was when China took naps. While she slept, Skeetah would teach himself to “eat,” or suck on, razor blades. When Esch asked him why he did it, he replied, “Why should China be the only one with teeth?” (60.)

Before Esch and Skeetah can embark on their mission, however, Daddy bursts into the house and asks them to help him retrieve boards from the attic wall above, visible from the house’s first floor since the ceiling caved in. He explains that there’s a new hurricane brewing in the Gulf called José that meteorologists predict will hit Mexico. Looking at Daddy, Esch wonders if this is what Medea saw in her own father: a “small-shouldered man” whose bark was bigger than his bite (62). Annoyed, Skeetah tacitly follows orders, using Esch to boost himself up at Daddy’s request and throw down the boards, the last of which hits Daddy. Skeetah apologizes, but then smiles sneakily at Esch.

Finished with that task, Skeetah instructs Esch to change into clothes that will blend into the woods. They are headed towards the eastern edge of the woods behind the Pit, where she and Skeetah once happened upon a cow farm where a white couple lived while they were playing tag. This farm is strange to Esch, as it is on the edge of “the black heart of Bois Sauvage,” where only black families live (67).

Esch and Skeetah run through the woods until they reach the farm’s edge, where Skeetah tells Esch of his plans to steal worm medicine for cows from the white couple’s barn. He plans to give the medicine to China’s puppies, believing it will stave off the parvo. As they creep around the property, they notice a puppy near the barn. Esch cuts her legs on blackberry patches, and Skeetah cleans the blood much like she remembers her mother doing.

Daydreaming, Esch remembers riding to school on the bus after the school district changed the route to pick up from the black part of Bois Sauvage earlier, which gave her the chance to see the white part of town on the rest of the ride. She wonders if, somewhere in white Bois, “they have their own Skeetahs and Esches crawling around the edges of their fields, like ants under the floorboards marching in line toward sugar left open in the cabinet” (71).

Suddenly, Esch and Skeetah see figures in the distance—it’s Junior, Randall, and Big Henry. Skeetah tries to deter Esch from calling out, but she does anyway, and they all gather. Esch explains their plans, which Randall discourages. Skeetah explains that, if the puppies live, they could earn about eight hundred dollars, some of which he would put towards summer basketball camp so that Randall might get a scholarship. Randall reluctantly agrees to help.

With each of the kids stationed at varying distances from the barn, Skeetah climbs inside the barn’s window, breaking the glass. Remembering she’s pregnant, Esch realizes she has to pee badly, but she must angle herself away from Big Henry and Junior—away from the farm’s driveway—to do so modestly. As she finishes peeing, a pickup truck approaches the house, and Esch, noticing it too late, whistles to signal Skeetah. He climbs out of the barn window, falls, and takes off running towards the woods. Seeing Skeetah, the white man who lives at the house yells out. His dog, Twist, hops out of the man's pickup truck and begins pursuing the group.

Although the dog nearly catches Esch and Skeetah several times, all five of the kids reach the Pit property before it does. By the time they arrive, China is ready; she attacks the other dog full-force. Esch pleads with Skeetah to stop China before she kills Twist, and Skeetah finally does. Twist runs back to his owner, blood trailing from his neck along the way.


In this chapter, Ward continues to structure the narrative by jumping between the present and Esch’s memories. This occurs most poignantly when Esch describes her morning rides to school on a bus that served both the white and black parts of Bois Sauvage, which gave her the chance to see white neighborhoods for the first time. It is in revisiting her memories of her white peers and their homes, particularly amid a chapter in which Esch and Skeetah cross a literal boundary between their black family’s property and that of a white family who lives behind them, that we see Bois Sauvage in a new light, the racial divide asserting the land as informally, if not legally, segregated.

Ward also extends her imagery of the apocalypse in this section, using the fleas that coat Esch’s legs at the start of the chapter to allude to the ten plagues afflicting Egypt just before the Exodus in the Bible. Because the ten plagues were God’s way of warning Pharaoh of an effective apocalypse, we can understand this imagery of the fleas as foreshadowing of the apocalypse that will visit Esch’s family in the form of the hurricane. This prelude to disaster is, of course, likewise echoed in the chapter titles themselves, with each one (“the first day,” “the second day,” etc.) calling to mind both the Biblical story of Creation and the days preceding the Exodus.

Vision is another apocalyptic motif in this chapter, as its role in personifying Esch's environment works to create an ominous tone. Running through the woods, Esch notices a rabbit with “one large black eye like a wet marble in its face, wide and glazed as if it is seeing something supernatural” (70). The rabbit, therefore, becomes like a seer or prophet, foretelling doom. Even the house belonging to their white neighbors takes on properties of vision, or rather the lack thereof; with the curtains drawn, Esch calls it “a blind house with closed eyes” (71). In emphasizing the ability (or lack of ability) of both living and inanimate figures to see, Ward builds an environment in which the entire world is, or should be, alert.

In fact, Esch briefly personifies the new hurricane Daddy talks about, wondering if the trees blowing in the wind are nodding to “the hum of José out in the Gulf, singing to himself” (66). Describing the storm as one would a singer, Esch lends agency to the apocalypse, giving it a face that could, perhaps, be seen. One must use all one’s senses to watch—or listen, as it were—for the storm.

Once again, Esch repeatedly mingles the living and dead through visceral comparisons. “The house is a drying animal skeleton,” Esch says of her grandparents’ house, harkening back to her earlier analogy of the cars in her yard to “picked-over animal bones” (58; 22). Similarly, she likens her grandparents’ house to “mostly eaten leftovers” (58). In doing so, she evokes the image of the Pit property as a giant, rotting animal skeleton constantly in the process of decomposing, yet another image foretelling the family’s descent into disaster.

Esch also continues to build on China’s figurative femininity, implicitly comparing Skeetah’s endeavor to provide China’s litter with a linoleum floor to Daddy’s project to build a house for Mama after their wedding. “I always thought it was something a man did for a woman when they married: build her something to live in” (60). Again, Esch is envisioning China as Skeetah’s wife. Later, Esch notices Skeetah pulling on her own wrist the way he pulls on a leash, “as if he can make [her] heel,” further blurring the line between woman and dog (72).