, January 25, 2012
(view all comments by Magnolia Rando)
What makes a person like a book? How much does understanding the setting play into liking a book? How much does understanding the time and place in which the book is set matter? How much does identifying with the situations the protagonist faces matter? How much does getting to interact with the author play into how much you enjoy a book?
I came across Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward a few months ago. I don't remember if it was before I saw it on the list of National Book Award nominees or if it was the nominee list in which I first saw it. I was immediately drawn to it for multiple reasons: Dog on the cover, author from Mississippi, centered around Hurricane Katrina. As I have so many books to read, I added it to the to read list and kept going.
Next thing I noticed is that the book won the National Book Award - wow! A Mississippi author has not won that award since the 80s. Only a handful of Mississippians have won the award - Falkner, Welty, and Alice Walker (Color Purple) are the three I recognized. The book edged up my to read list.
Then, disappointingly, a friend of mine read it and did not care for it. Oh, well, I thought, and the book slipped down the to read list. Not long after that though, I realized it would most likely make the Tournament of Books and I read 4 really good reviews from several top reviewers. Then, finally, I received an email from Lemuria,my local independent book store, that the author, Jasmyn Ward would be in town on Dec 17th to sign her book and give a reading. I went by Lemuria and bought the book with the intention of reading the first several chapters and getting it signed. Why not, it is a National Book Award winning book by a Mississippi author.
So, I was forewarned by my friend who did not care for the book that it was not 100% about Katrina and more about a dog. I believe that knowing this tidbit of info aided in my enjoyment of this book. Believing that it was all about Katrina going into it would have been a let down for me. That said, I started reading and could not put the book down. I loved this book. It is about an impoverished teenaged girl, Esch who is from the rural south, and her family over 12 days ending with the day after Katrina hit. She is the only girl in a family of four. Her mother passed away some 7 years earlier and her father is dealing with his own demons and lets the kids take care of each other.
I understood this book. I live in Mississippi. I have lived in small rural towns considered "metropolitan" by the communities of 50-100 people in the surrounding area. I know Freeny, Walnut Grove, Mendenhall, Hot Coffee, New Hebron. Blink and you just missed it. I know how it feels to be young and find yourself in situations when you weren't really sure if you were old enough or mature enough to handle them. I remember "poo-pooing" the path of the Hurricane. There were so many false alarms - it couldn't be that bad - the forecasters love to incite chaos. I think many of them love to predict gloom and doom just to see how fast the bread will fly off the shelves of the local grocery store. I remember how hot it was that week preceding Katrina and how still it was after she left her path of destruction. We were without power for 3 days and it was really hot. I remember volunteering at "Hands" a charity pulled together to help those who lost everything in the storm. Many did not have anything before the storm and they definitely did not have anything after the storm. And, I understand the love and devotion to a dog. No, I did not care for the dog fighting in the book, but I understood the relationship that Esch's brother Skeetah had with the dog China. So is the reason I loved this book because I could identify with it so much?
Or was it my interaction with the author? Saturday, I cleared my afternoon to go to Lemuria for the book signing. I got there 45 minutes early. Walked around, bought the hard back addition of Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet, by David Mitchell, my all time favorite book ever. Sat and read some more of Salvage the Bones and was given the number 7. I would be the 7th person to get my book signed. Not long after they had us start lining up, a young very pretty women walked up to the booth to start the book signing. Obviously it was the author Jesmyn Ward. She was very pleasant and gracious with a heartwarming smile. I had my book signed, congratulated her on her award and told her that I was enjoying the book and thought it was very lyrical and that I liked her descriptions. What else do you say to someone signing a book? I went downstairs, purchased a coffee and a cookie and walked to the reading room. I don't know how long it took Ms Ward to sign the books but before long she came in, taking the podium and after a moment she laughed nervously and gave us a brief background of the book. She would be reading from day 11 - I was on day 6. There are 12 chapters - each a day.
Day 11 was the day the storm hit. I had read enough of the book to be completely familiar with the characters and to know what was happening in the story. Ms Wards voice was hypnotizing. She read in such a way to transport me right there into the house with Esch and her family. I could hear the wind, remember the trees bending, feel the heat in the house once the a/c went out. The story and the story-teller held me spell bound. After the reading Ms Ward accepted questions from all topics ranging from the characters in the book, to personal questions about her past and future, to race issues and her book to winning the National Book Award. She was gracious. She took each question and thought about it seeming to give a very unrehearsed answer. It was after 5:15 when she stopped and she stopped only because we had run out of questions to ask her.
I would not call Salvage the Bones perfect. It covers some uncomfortable subject matters. I love similies and metaphors. Apparently, so does Jasmyn Ward - maybe at times she uses the similies too flagrantly, but then she will nail several descriptions beautifully. Plus, after asked about the use of the "like" comparisons, Ms Ward indicated that Esch was still discovering herself and her world and her place in this world. Esch's descriptions were allowing her to find her own voice with what she knew and make it familiar to those around her.
One technique I really did find that I liked, is that there were several times when two things would be going on at once. Instead of having a chapter for each, Ms Ward would alternate paragraphs instead. At first this was a little confusing, but after realizing what she was doing, it helped tell the story with the urgency as it was happening instead of going back and forth in time.
This book is probably not for everyone. It is darker than my normal "Sweet Southern Literature". It does contain underage sexual situations and dog fighting (one of my other favorite books had cock fighting in it). Some may not care for Esch's teenaged pining over a boy. But, I loved it and hope that Ms Ward will continue to right fiction in the future.