The White Presence in Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones”

Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward delivering the keynote address at the 2016 CLA awards banquet 

After attending the 2016 College Language Association (CLA) conference, I finally read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011). Ward provided the keynote speech at the conference’s awards banquet, and upon hearing her, I knew that I had to reach onto my shelf, pull down Esch’s story, and read it. The novel, of course, contains numerous items that warrant exploration and discussion. At CLA, I heard a paper on the private and the public in regards to sex in the novel, as well as in relation to Pecola Breedlove’s experiences in  Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1972). When I read the book, I could not help but think about Hurricane Katrina, the myth of Medea and Jason, and the symbolic relationship between Esch and her brother Skeetah’s fighting dog China. All of these topics have seen further discussion, and I do not want to apporach them today. Instead, I want to examine the way that Ward presents the subjugation and oppression of Esch’s family without continually portraying the people who cause it. 

Ward’s ability to show the separation between whites and blacks in the back country of Mississippi reminds me, in many ways, of the way that Ernest J. Gaines represents the same chasm in his own works, most notably his short story “The Sky is Gray.” There, Gaines does not blatantly present racist characters or situations; instead, through understatement, he provides the reader with the information needed to realize that the region that Octavia and James inhabit constricts them to an existence that demeans them and views them as lower than the whites who run the town, Bayonne. Ward, throughout Salvage the Bones, does not have Esch, her family, or those close to them come face to face with racism. However, the contagion of racism affects all of them, existing on the periphery. Rather than centering on these aspects, Ward, like Gaines in “The Sky s Gray,” focuses on the ways that the characters create and exist within a community that supports one another.

On the fourth Day, Esch, with her brothers Skeetah and Junior, along with their friend Big Henry, go to steal some medicine from a white man’s house to help China, Skeetah’s prize fighting dog, get better. During the scene, the group sneaks around the outskirts of the farm house, hiding in the pastures and woods as lookouts while Skeet breaks into the house to steal the medicine. As they crawl, Esch thinks back to the time when St. Catharine changed them hook bus schedule, causing her and her siblings to have to get the bus stop by 6:30 am for an hour-long ride to school. On the ride, they would ride “up and out of the black Bois that [they] knew and into the white Bois that [they] didn’t,” picking up white students along the way (70). Coming back to the present, Esch wonders “if they have their own Skeetahs and Esches crawling around the edges of their fields, like ants under floorboards marching in line toward sugar left open in the cabinet” (71). This image, of kids and teenagers “sneaking” around, like “ants,” creates an ominous thought of something inherently wrong. Does the white community have “Skeetahs and Esches” who seek to steal for survival or to better their lives? That is the question being asked.

During the same scene, Junior, Esch’s younger brother joins the group.Junior, who tags along with her siblings to everything, does not realize the implications of the current situation. Skeetah confronts Junior, warning him about the seriousness of their act and he compares the white family in the farmhouse to the woman in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel who lures the children into her home to eat them. He tells his brother, “Well, that’s who own that house, and they want to fatten you up like a little pig and eat you” (75). Skeetah’s presents the white owners as villainous individuals who, and in many ways, the manner in which Skeetah paints the white couple mirrors the ways that the old men in Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men (1982) choose to paint Fix in a symbolic manner. Fix, for the men, exists as a symbol of all of the wrongs that have been done to them in regards to racial subjugation. Skeetah does not do this outright, but the way he warns Junior about the owners of the house makes it apparent that their interactions with whites have not been necessarily good.

Earlier in the novel, on the second day, Esch, Skeetah, and Big Henry go into St. Catharine to get dog food for China and her new puppies and to get supplies for the possible impending hurricane. On their way back to the Pit, the trio come across a car wreck with a man and woman. Esch does not indicate if the man and woman are white, but from the contextual clues that speak of the man’s shirt and he woman’s hair, it appears that they are. The man, bleeding, talks to Big Henry while the woman remains unconscious in the passenger’s seat. Skeetah gets frustrated, but when the ambulance finally arrives, they leave to go home. Once at home, Esch tells Big Henry that he should wash his hands, and she thinks, “He could have blood on them, that man’s blood, breeding things on his hands. The inside of the man’s body come out to make Big Henry sick” (34-35). Esch worries about contagion, and while the contagion is obviously physical, it can also be taken as something more. Rather than the dirt giving China and the puppies parvo, could it have been the man’s blood? If that is the case, then the infection that causes the dogs to get parvo comes from the outside, possibly from whites.

There is more of course; specifically, I still want to focus on the land that constitutes the Pit, the land that Papa Joseph and Mother Lizabteh owned. There also needs to be an exploration of the idea of invisibility in the novel. These are thoughts that I cannot explore here, but they are worth looking at. Finally, further exploration needs to occur in regards to the idea of whiteness on the periphery. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Note: The page numbers are from an advanced copy of the novel. They may not correspond to a retail copy. 

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One thought on “The White Presence in Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones”

  1. Pingback: African American Literature and the American Dream Syllabus | Interminable Rambling

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