Salvage the Bones

By Jesmyn Ward
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buy Now This book is on reading list for November 2018

Close Reading Exercise

Salvage the Bones is packed with images of motherhood, from the very beginning when China is delivering her puppies, to Esch’s pregnancy, to memories of “Mama.” Select one passage related to the idea of motherhood and describe its impact on the reader and relevance to the overall novel.

For example, on pages 220-221, Esch and Skeetah talk about Mama and Hurricane Camille. Skeetah remembers Mama talking about Camille but says, “I can remember her saying it…But I can’t remember her voice…I know the exact words she said, can see us sitting there by her lap, but I all I can hear is my voice saying it, not hers.”

This passage is especially painful in that we hear from Skeetah’s point of view how big the void is in all of their lives—that he can remember her words, but the sound of her voice is gone. This reflects the importance of their mother and what they have lost, what will never be recovered by their family.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does the book open with China delivering her puppies? What do we learn about the family? In what way does this exposition establish the theme of the novel?
  2. How does the myth of Jason and Medea relate to Esch’s relationship with Manny? Why does she frame her own challenges through the lens of “the women who kept me turning the pages: the trickster nymphs, the ruthless goddesses, the world-uprooting mothers” (p. 15)?
  3. Ward uses numerous declarative sentences throughout the novel, such as “She is her mother’s daughter. She is a fighter. She breathes” (p. 13); “The knife cuts” (p. 203); “He blinked hard” (p. 238); and “He left a thin wake” (p. 240). What is the cumulative effect of her writing style?
  4. How does Bois Sauvage and its deprivations—the poverty, unemployment and housing the area shape the people, especially young people, who live there?
  5. On page 22, Esch says, “The only thing that’s ever been easy for me to do, like swimming through water, was sex when I started having it. I was twelve.” How do you understand Esch’s sexuality as a pre-adolescent through her pregnancy?
  6. What about Esch’s pregnancy? Why might the author have created a narrator, and central character, as a young pregnant teenager? What, overall, does the author of this book suggest about the nature of motherhood?
  7. In what way is Katrina both destructive and cleansing? What does Katrina represent symbolically?


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