I've just finished reading Jesmyn Ward's devastating, and devastatingly beautiful, novel Salvage the Bones for the second time. I wrote this when I read it the first time.
In three reviews of Salvage the Bones (New York Times, Washington Post, Kirkus), Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award winning novel, no reviewer focuses on the centrality of motherhood in the book. Ward does do so in interviews she's given about the book. Also, the narrator's father is described by reviewers as an alcoholic, indifferent and abusive to his children's needs. Almost no one mentions Skeetah, the older brother that narrator Esch is so attached to that she can almost feel him as part of her own body. In other words, all of these reviews, in my opinion, get the book wrong and miss the most important parts.
Ward's book opens with birth: Skeetah's pit bull China is giving birth to puppies and the reader learns more about the mechanics of that than one might have hoped, but we also learn that China is the love of Skeetah's life. His capacity of care for her is big enough to encompass almost the entire bayou in which they live and ultimately weather hurricane Katrina that is approaching relentlessly throughout the book, villain and goddess of the book. The love Skeetah has for China, that older brother Randall has for youngest brother Junior, that they all have for each other and their Dad's love, flawed as it is, is the sinew that ties the book together and is Ward's contribution. As much as relations and inequalities between men and women and toxic masculinity provide a drum beat throughout the book, it is actually the human capacity for love, the undersold story of infinite male tenderness and even less told story of female ferocity that are its heart. While damaged emotionally and eventually also physically, the children's father spends the entire book preparing for the storm. Amidst his own traumas and anxieties, he gathers resources, boards windows, stores water, worrying as the storm approaches, while no one else heeds his alarm. In a book in which the Greek myths are an undercurrent, he is the chorus, announcing and heeding the omens of doom.
Even Big Henry, a physically massive and emotionally stable tree trunk of a presence, reminds Esch over and over until she hears it that he will protect her and care for her, without permitting the selfish distraction of his own desire to drown her, like the boy she sees as a sun god, Manny does.
But it is the mother force of China, the echoes and remnants of love of the children's own mother lost in childbirth, Katrina and Esch, ultimately, herself, that is the main drive in the book. Like Medea, this force is as capable of wanton destruction (Katrina, obviously but also China's unthinking violence toward her own puppies) as it is of the kind of tenderness that keeps her children's faces unlined, unworried, bathed in love (later, motherless Randall's face is described as a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don't quite fit), mothers marshal and command the power of the universe. It is not a power to be taken for granted or contained. It spills over, knocking down everything in its path. It is limitless, like when Big Henry's mother has room enough in her own damaged home to take in Esch's family, soothing and nursing them all to comfort. It is this force that Esch, in her coming of age and coming to accept her own impending motherhood, understands she must now marshal.