The Imagery of the Vernacular in Salvage the Bones

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side by side series of the cover of salvage the bones

When Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans and the Gulf in 2005, all that anybody, including me, could fathom was all that water. Water is what is commonly associated with a major storm, especially Katrina; it pooled in all the wrong places in images shared across the world. But the sound of a storm is underappreciated. It has to be lived—and faced with courage and spirit—to know it.

Those of us in tornado alley know major storms by their freight train acoustics; it’s cliché to say this, but the sound is easy for a people like African Americans to relate to—we live in an oral culture. We use sound—or the absence of it—and especially language to ward off fear, or to expand it. This is what Jesmyn Ward does in the climactic chapter of her 2011 novel, Salvage the Bones. In Salvage the Bones, Ward connects her Black characters to climate change by using the sound of Katrina to explore their lived experience. It is the oral tradition alive on the page.

The Batiste family lives through Hurricane Katrina in the Mississippi Delta area. There’s fifteen-year-old Esch, the narrator; her daddy; and her three brothers—Randall, age 17, Skeetah, 16, and Junior, age 7. Mama died birthing Junior, and her father is caught in his grief and in providing for his children, so they are a sibling family. Skeetah and Esch are the main focus of the novel, as each has something at stake: Skeetah owns a prize fighting dog, China, a pitbull, who births her first litter ten days before the storm. Those puppies are Skeetah’s stake in his future. Esch is pregnant and is working up to sharing that information with her family and the father. Against the backdrop of real violence in the form of pitbull fights, births ending in death, and the anticipation of Hurricane Katrina, the novel takes place over 12 days—a chapter for each day—and the forever of Esch’s family history.

On “The First Day,” the Batiste family—Daddy and his four children—witness China’s birth labor in a shed on their property. “China’s turned on herself,” Ward writes—that startling visual image comprises the first words of the narrative. The image gives way quickly to Esch’s memory of her mother, who also in a sense “turned on herself” as she refused help with birth labor and died. “Mama squatted, screamed toward the end,” we hear. In this way the birth of five pitbull puppies—already important because of the economic lift their survival and sale can give the family—takes on added significance; images in the form of the woman-made sound dominate the narrative. The story continues in this auditory vein as Esch describes how her morning started when “Daddy woke me up by hitting the wall outside me and Junior’s room. ‘Wake up! We got work to do.’ he said.” When she sees her father, he has “a hammer in one hand, a clutch of nails in another.” Esch says, Daddy is “fixing up for the hurricane . . . . there’s always a hurricane coming or leaving here.” Here, we hear the storm coming before we see it as Daddy fights to protect what he has. That effort becomes the theme of this book.

The climactic fight of the novel comes in “The Eleventh Day: Katrina.” This chapter opens with Esch’s memory of Mama. Mothers symbolize safety and love; pregnant and without a steady beau, Esch needs the wisdom of her mother. In the chapter’s first sentence, she remembers “When Mama first explained to me what a hurricane was.” We are reminded here of how dialogue is the fuel of fiction. Voice is said to be the closest to the essence of a person we can experience; Esch wants to remember her mother’s voice so she can “speak her alive.” Black people believe speaking can bring a thing into existence. We chide each other when voice is given to fear, speculation, worst-case scenarios, and horror. These realities are already too real without speaking them alive. Speak your heart we say to encourage testifying in church. With sound, what’s good becomes better. Sound refuses to stay lodged in the ear.  It comes alive beyond, building energy in and significance to those others who also hear it.

On the eleventh day, “The sun will not show.” It is hidden, like Esch’s fetus. She lies awake and “cannot see anything but that baby,” but hears “the wind, like a train, again, and the house creaks.” “Did you hear that?” Skeetah asks her. “Yeah.” Then she remembers, “A train, Mama said. Camille came and the wind sounded like trains.” To escape the terror, Esch attaches good memories to her learning about the freight train sound: putting her nose to her mother’s knee, “swimming on the oyster shell beach,” and “the train that ran through the middle of St. Catherine” that sounded “loudly in the distance. I could not imagine wind sounding like that. But now I hear, and I can.” Katrina’s train is intruding on Esch and she is scared.

Of course, her brother Skeetah is not. History is his sedative. “We ain’t even on the bay,” he tells Esch. “We back far enough up in the trees to be all right. All these Batistes been living up here all these years through all these hurricanes and they been all right. I’m telling you.” A trusted source can ease emotion and help one feel in control, but the Batiste family is not in control. They are on the verge of losing everything. Notably, Skeetah avoids the issue of sound, focusing instead solely on sight, because the sound of the storm is terrifying.

On the morning of day eleven, Daddy has not yet risen. He is weak from losing half his hand in an accident suffered on day six while “fixing up for the hurricane”—fighting to protect what he has. China becomes agitated for no reason Esch can hear, then “a loud, deafening boom” heralds a tree breaking through the roof of Daddy’s bedroom. Following his protective instinct, he makes light of the gaping hole, all the while minimizing his hospital bandage, and his pain from the severed bone, nerves and flesh, just like he did when the family lost their mother. When he came home from the hospital with the new baby, but not her, he said, “Your mama didn’t make it.” On day eleven, water is collecting beneath the house and coming up through the floorboards. Daddy says, “Wood just getting a little damp.” His is a rough, don’t-make-too-much-of-it love.

Like her father, Esch minimizes. She eschews the sight of a sky filled with swirling clouds, driving rain, and boarded-up windows. She does not dwell on the threat of water. The thought—the image—of it touching them, of it overcoming and drowning them, is minimized. This is most evident when they realize the water is coming up from the ground beneath them. Esch says, “We have been sitting in the living room, terrified and bored” with cards and the book of mythology that is her summer reading. For two pages, her father and brothers go back and forth about why the floor is “dark.” They can’t believe it’s wet. Here the physical foundation of their lives fails. So as a way of coping, Esch focuses on sound.

Minimizing is how poor black families get by. They can’t do anything about most things, so they say, in effect, It doesn’t matter. This extends to history, as well. When the Batiste family is in the attic, and the water is rising, Randall is getting ready to tell them about a family of fourteen people who drowned in the attic of their home during Camille. But he stops speaking when Daddy says, “We know.” That means, Shut the fuck up. Silence is a sound too.

In the attic, the sound of the “fumbling rush of the wind” invades, passing easily through the thin roof. The dog barks, disturbed. Skeetah commands, “Quiet, China!” And she quiets. Tone communicates even when one does not know the words. In communication, tone is learned first. It is a grammar people understand innately.

We African Americans live in an oral culture. That is a legacy of slavery. Being able to read or write, to be literate, was illegal; communicating was further complicated, however, by the many languages enslaved Africans brought to the factories and the ship hold. Unable to speak directly to each other, the gap in communication elevated the importance of tone. How a thing sounded spoke loud and clear in translation.

This is how Esch understands the storm. As they huddle in the attic, she thinks, “The storm speaks.” Personification by voice makes the storm known. The storm makes the house creak on its foundation, and they understand that they must move to higher ground. When her family breaks out of the attic, Esch says, “the storm screams, I have been waiting for you.” Its patience outstrips her own. This storm has been coming on for ten days, taking its time. As Esch says of the storm when the family huddles together on the roof, “it is everywhere.” There is no way out.

On their final leap to safety, the family must travel through the tree branches from the roof of their rocking home to the safety of their grandparents’ house on a hill. Daddy learns that Esch is pregnant on this perilous journey when Skeetah, who has taken the lead, says, “Esch, you come with me.” Daddy objects. He thinks Skeetah’s concern is saving the puppies Esch carries in a bucket. Because they don’t have time to dance around the subject, Skeetah blurts, “She’s pregnant.” That’s their family life: big news shouted above the howls of a hurricane.

The eleventh day ends with the reintroduction of strong visual images. Esch lands in the water, a “fanged pink open mouth” “swallowing” her. The mouth is a source of sound, but here it is a picture of doom eating her alive.

They all manage to escape, and now the hard work of living starts all over. Again. The last sentence of the chapter is telling: Skeetah has “his hand over his eyes because he does not want to see anymore.” What Esch sees in the action of her enterprising brother is a recognition of the loss that is their life. She sees a future of problems trying to kill them. But that is how it is.

Little is new in the story told in Salvage the Bones. Black Americans and hardship are close friends. Survival is a foregone conclusion. What is new here is how Jesmyn Ward has created a narrator who is observing her own problems, and those of the people she loves, with sound images. The vernacular tradition, the oral tradition, is the true way to observe Black lives. It informs the convention of print; Black Americans are governed by that tradition as well. She uses sound judiciously in the climax of this novel about one family and Hurricane Katrina to excite the horrors facing Black families. It is a situation we’ve become all too comfortable with.