Salvage the Bones- Book Review

This was my first foray into so-called “Katrina literature.”  I was living in Dallas during Hurricane Katrina, and felt a connection to that disastrous event.  A couple of weeks after the hurricane, I had an opportunity to go down with a group of people and help: cutting and removing limbs, tearing out moldy dry wall, moving and sorting other debris.  That was a great experience.  Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward was not.

I wanted to connect to this book, and given my experience, thought that I could.  Katrina touched this country, and I am not saying for one second that it should not be written about.  But from start to finish, from title to “The End,” this book rang inauthentic and like the author was trying WAY too hard.

She is a capable writer.  There was nothing wrong with the grammar, the writing, or even the layout of the story.  But it did not move me.  I could not identify with a single character.

The main character, Esch, is a young teenage girl growing up impoverished and promiscuous in coastal Mississippi.  And yet (implausibly), she is a huge Greek mythology afficionado.  Too much suspension of disbelief for this daydreamer.

There was also a heavy dog-fighting theme that I was left doubting the author, an educated MFA, had much experience with (at least I would hope not).

Suffice it to say, not my favorite reading experience.  Actually, truth be told, I instantly hated it, but broke my rule of no longer reading books I am not enjoying, convincing myself it was something I should read.  I am not glad I persevered.

And then, in preparing for this review, I see that Jesmyn Ward just won The National Book Award for Fiction with this book.  Of course.  Because this is one of those books.  Written as an award grabber.  And how are you not going to give the award to the touching Katrina tale with the coming-of-age underprivileged teenage girl that somehow loves Greek mythology story?

Call me bitter, call me jaded, call me close-minded, but this book was not award-winning caliber.  I don’t only want to read stories about people just like me, and don’t.  But I think you should write what you know, not what you know people will claim to like because it is politically incorrect not to.  Sorry, Jesmyn.  Nothing personal.  You got the award, though, so what do I know, or what do you care?  But I would like to see you use your skill to write something truer to your own experience.

2 thoughts on “Salvage the Bones- Book Review

    • No, it’s not. And you’re in luck, because I know where you could pick up a copy FOR CHEAP.

      I did a little more looking, and came across other articles:

      http://shelf-life.ew.com/2011/11/18/jesmyn-ward-interview-national-book-award/

      http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2011_f_ward.html

      http://www.amazon.com/Jesmyn-Ward/e/B001JOW9NW

      This just further supports what I’m saying.

      And I know what people would say: “You’re just jealous or bitter or hating.” No, I’m not. “You didn’t grow up there, so you don’t know what it’s like. She is the only one in a position to be authentic.” No, I didn’t grow up there, but I am entitled to my opinion as a reader. I read, as you know, A LOT. And she is probably a better writer than I will ever get a chance to be (having been a writing fellow at Stanford and writer in residence at University of Mississippi, I would certainly hope so). That is not what I am criticizing her about.

      Maybe it is “real,” and I just can’t get it, because I am not a teenage girl or a mother. I didn’t grow up like that. She has experienced some personal tragedy in her life, so I kind of feel like a jerk going after her. But we all have tragedies, and it influences all of our writing. All of our lives. I can usually, though, identify with characters in a book; even if their experience or behavior is completely foreign to my experience or who I am, some undeniably human element will resonate with me. Here, there was nothing.

      I don’t know her. I admire her accomplishment, and her writing. And I am a little bit jealous of her success. But I wonder what her background is really like. Maybe she is writing from her own experience and I just need to shut up.

      But as an example. I grew up and went to junior high in El Paso, Texas, walking distance from some housing projects. There was a lot of gang activity and their were a lot of Hispanics at my school. Some of their parents were in the country illegally. Could I write an authentic story in that setting about my experience and perspective? Yes. But could I write a plausible story from their perspective? Probably not. I wonder where she falls on that spectrum.

      Do you know what I mean, writing about stuff that you are SUPPOSED TO write about? Writing with the award in mind? That’s just how this felt to me. But I could be completely wrong, and just a bitter, jaded jerk.

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