Friday, May 25, 2012

Weathering the Storm

I've read several examples of post 9/11 fiction – Joseph O'Neill's “Netherland”, Don DeLillo's “Falling Man”, Amy Waldman's “The Submission”- but this is my first post Katrina read. The action in Jesmyn West's Salvage The Bones takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi during the twelve days leading up to and just after Hurricane Katrina. The narrator is 15-year-old Esch, the only girl in a poor black family. I have developed somewhat of an aversion to plucky young female narrators, so I'm happy to report that Esch is not plucky. She longs for her mother, who died giving birth to Esch's younger brother Junior, she moons over a boy named Manny, whose interest in her is purely sexual, and she buries herself in Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” as she attempts to liken her situation to Medea pursuing Jason.

Ignoring the impending storm, despite warnings from their father, the four children battle the complications of their young lives. Most powerful is the story of Esch's brother Skeetah, whose life revolves around his devotion to his dog China and her newborn pups. But fair warning – his unconditional love for his dog doesn't prevent him from pitting her against another dog in an extraordinarily vicious and bloody fight. It took me four tries to get through that chapter.

But, as the storm bears down on them, West gradually reveals the love that binds these tough, gritty siblings to each other and lifts their simple lives to the grand themes of honor, revenge, tragedy and loyalty of mythology. She occasionally wallows in too many metaphors, but her language is as powerful and tender as the family she describes.

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