2011 was a very good year for fiction, with new titles by heavyweights of contemporary American letters like Jeffrey Eugenides, Ann Patchett, and Stephen King, as well as debut authors with tons of buzz like Chad Harbach, Erin Morgenstern, and Téa Obreht.
But in a crowded field, the 2011 National Book Award winner was Salvage the Bones, a slim novel released so quietly that most newspapers hadn’t yet reviewed it when it was nominated.
However, there is nothing at all quiet about Salvage the Bones.
Set in a coastal Mississippi town in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the story is narrated by Esch, a 15-year-old girl who has just learned that she’s pregnant. She doesn’t know how to tell her family - understandably. Her father has stayed drunk for seven years, ever since Esch’s mother died. Her oldest brother thinks of little but winning a basketball scholarship, while her brother Skeetah lavishes all his attention on China, his prized pit bull, and her new litter of puppies. And Esch has obsessions of her own. She’s in love with Manny, the beautiful, but indifferent boy who got her pregnant. While Esch reads a book of Greek mythology for school, she thinks, “I imagine this is the way Medea felt about Jason when she fell in love... that she looked at him and felt a fire eating up through her rib cage... I feel it so strongly that I cannot imagine how Manny does not feel it, too.”
But with a storm unlike any in Esch’s lifetime roaring towards them, obsession is dangerous, a luxury none of them can afford. When the storm hits, all that remains is the instinct for survival - and afterwards, to salvage what remains.
Ward has written a brutal book about crushing rural poverty, dog fighting, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy - and yet it’s also very beautiful, written in lush, lyrical prose and steeped in the tropes of Greek mythology. Esch is an unforgettable narrator, and like Medea, whose story is woven throughout the book, she refuses to be overlooked or cast aside.