Salvage the Bones
“It is not that adults produce children, but more importantly that children produce adults” (Peter De Vries). In the novel, Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward takes the readers on a quest through the life of Esch. Esch is only fifteen years old when she realizes that her life is collapsing in on her. She is the only girl in a world full of men; from her drunken father to the love of her life, Manny. Esch’s mother died when she was giving birth to her seven year old brother, Junior, forcing her to take care of this damaged family. Skeetah, one of Esch’s three brothers, is occupied with the care and upkeep of his pit bull, China, and her puppies.
Skeetah engages the family in his dog-fights while his friends take interest in Esch at each match or gathering. Her family seems to struggle to find food daily and as the infamous surprise of Hurricane Katrina arrives, Esch battles the realization that she is pregnant. Esch is transformed into an adult through the powerful women in literature, memory, and nature. Medea is an influential literary character that guides Esch to become a stronger woman.
At the beginning of the novel, Esch describes herself as a puny, transparent girl. When Esch characterizes herself she uses the all-mighty Greek Goddess, Medea, to contrast. Ward reveals Esch’s self-image, “…She [Esch] wasn’t like the women in the mythology book, the women who kept me turning the pages: the trickster nymphs, the ruthless goddesses, the world uprooting mothers” (15). The description of these women and the last emphasis on “uprooting mothers” reveals Esch’s jealousy of the mothers who conquer world. She is captivated by these literary creatures and gazes upon their power because she does not have the compelling privilege in a man’s world.
Esch takes the first steps to gain strength when she realizes that Manny, the father of her unborn child, manipulates her. Much like Medea is vulnerable towards Jason, Esch becomes weak when she is at the hand of Manny and it is not until her self-respect overpowers her love for Manny that Medea’s influence gives her vitality. “I hit his Adam’s apple with the V where my thumb and pointer finger cross. He chokes. ‘I loved you!’ This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting” (Ward 204). Since Esch only has her experiences to raise her, Medea steps into the role as a mentor because of her confident and bold characteristics. Medea does not take Jason’s nonsense and neither should Esch. She uses the past tense of love in the above context because she has broken free; Esch finally gains the power she has always longed for.
Esch is transformed into an adult because Medea influences her to stand up for herself. Esch’s mother may not be physically with her anymore, but Mama’s memory constantly plays a role in Esch’s growth. Esch never accepts her transformation into Mama’s motherly role because Mama is considered to be virtuous, but other characters and the readers can recognize that Esch becomes like Mama. Esch’s development begins when she is forced into taking care of her father and brothers. ‘“Junior, stop being orner”. It’s what Mama used to say to us when we were little, and I say it to Junior out of habit” (Ward 24).
Esch raises her brothers the way Mama would have raised them. The text shows that Mama is a powerful influence on Esch from the simple use of language in the household. She unconsciously already acts as mother yet degrades herself when she is compared to Mama. When Skeetah witnesses the resemblance in Mama and Esch he explains, “You look like her. You know that? …You not as big as her, but in the face. Something about your lips and eyes. The older you get the more you do.’ I don’t know what to say, so I half grimace and I shake my head. But Mama, Mama always here. See?” (Ward 222). Esch becomes Mama’s motherly persona throughout the novel simply because Mama’s memory is always with her.
Mama shows through Esch’s external and internal features as she gets older and older. By being forced into the position of taking care of her brothers and experiencing challenges and problems other teenagers do not go through, she is forced to grow into an adult. The memory of Mama releases a maternal aspect of Esch that allows her to grow to become a woman. There are a few characters in nature such as China and Hurricane Katrina that Esch subconsciously looks up to. Throughout Esch’s quest to salvage herself, China is always alongside to give insight on the harsh world of motherhood.
Esch notices how China handles the cruel world of motherhood; it is not from a fairytale or the cliché lives that white, privileged women brag about. Instead, motherhood is terrifying and dangerous. When Esch catches China killing one of her puppies, she observes, “China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?” (Ward 130). As Esch observes China’s malicious being, her question towards motherhood is full of fear. She witnesses the craze of these influential females, such as Medea and China, and realizes that becoming a mother will take hard work and therefore she prepares herself for the challenges that lie ahead in life. When Hurricane Katrina destroys Esch’s home, she recognizes that motherhood can also lead to a new beginning. Ward’s description of Katrina says, “ She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies…
She left us to learn to crawl” (255). It is evident that although Katrina destroys Esch’s home, the storm also cleanses Esch’s life and soul. Hurricane Katrina gave Esch and her family the opportunity “to learn to crawl” or to start their journey to adulthood. Hurricane Katrina is an allegory of starting over. Much like God sent the flood to wash away evil and sin from the world, Hurricane Katrina washes away weakness and insecurity from Esch.
The influential characters of nature in this novel unleash the burden of motherhood while also showing Esch that she is the author of her own life story. Through nature, Esch realizes she needs to become more aggressive. Esch comes to grips that she will be a mother and ultimately realizes she is now an adult. Throughout the novel, Jesmyn Ward weaves the theme of motherhood into the pages, revealing the savagery she associated. As Esch takes the journey to becoming a mother she realizes she is in the dark and must turn to mentors out of the ordinary. Esch turns to Medea, the great and powerful goddess conflicted within love, to support her through the heartbreak Manny inflicts.
Medea ultimately guides Esch to become strong and confident. Mama is also a lost authority figure Esch must look to for guidance. Mama’s nurturing spirit is what Esch fundamentally uncovers in herself. Lastly, Esch finds guides in the nature of China and Hurricane Katrina to show her that motherhood will not be perfect but that it will be a learning experience worth living through. Esch’s quest to find herself within these female mentors conclusively is what leads her to transform into a strong, nurturing woman.