Reading Like a Writer: SALVAGE THE BONES and Memory
Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is the story of a family caught in Hurricane Katrina. It's also about lost mothers, new mothers, dogs, and community. The narrator is Esch, a fifteen-year-old girl who is newly and secretly pregnant and who grieves deeply for her mother, who died a long time ago.
I'm interested in the way Esch's memories of her mother affect her storytelling style and the greater narrative. Here's an early example of memory bleeding into the present action of the story (China, by the way, is a dog):
"Maybe you need to help her push." Sometime I think this is what killed mama. I can see her, chin to chest, straining to push Junior out, and Junior snagging on her insides, grabbing hold of what he caught on to try to stay inside her, but instead he pulled it out with him when he was born.
"She don't need no help pushing."
And China doesn't. Her sides ripple. She snarls, her mouth a black line. Her eyes are red; the mucus runs pink. Everything about China tenses and there are a million marbles under her skin, and then she seems to be turning herself inside out. At her opening, I see a purplish red bulb. China is blooming.
It makes sense for one scene of labor to be compared to another. However, the seamlessness with which Esch combines the two makes something more than sense. We learn that for Esch, memory is a primary way of understanding and describing the world.
Look at how she just "sees" her mother. She doesn't have to dig for a memory because the picture is right at the surface for her.
This is true throughout the book. The loss of her mother is constantly on her mind and so it serves as backdrop or comparison for pretty much everything else that happens.
But her mother is present in more than the lines specifically about her.
Notice the way ugly and pretty mix in the description of China. Some of the details are truly horrifying: "a black line" of a mouth, "a million marbles under her skin," and "turning herself inside out." But mingling with these horrific and painful words are bits of strange beauty, even tenderness: "a purplish red bulb" and "blooming."
So the description is simultaneously raw and pretty. Why would Esch bother to make this scene of a dog—a vicious dog that her brother loves but she doesn't—into something lovely? Where would she find tenderness for an animal that is so fierce? I think it's due to her mother. Because she constantly longs for her, she can't help but infuse a bit of that longing, and even a bit of love, into her language.
More specifically, the flower imagery references her mother because Ward has established the fact just a few paragraphs earlier:
Junior came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama's last flower. She touched Junior just like that when Daddy held him over her: lightly with her fingertips, like she was afraid she'd knock the pollen from him, spoil the bloom.
But back to the scene about China. Beyond what it reveals of Esch's persistent thoughts of her mother, the juxtaposition of gore and loveliness makes the description more powerful. First and most obvious, the contrast makes us more aware of each.
The beauty also invites us to linger in the hideousness a bit longer. The bulb that blossoms at the end of the passage gives a sudden different perspective on the scene that makes us look back, once again, at the violent rest of it.
I think the flower imagery also intensifies the horror by creating a shadow of the sense of loss. If loss is merely described, the reader can understand it intellectually but doesn't feel it. The reader must actually know and connect to the thing that is taken for its loss to feel real. I think this hint of beauty in an otherwise ugly passage is a way to do that on a low-key, subconscious level. Ward creates a shadow of that which is gone, so we can feel, just the tiniest bit, what we're losing. The pain of the violence is not just in contrast to the beauty, but because the beauty is being hacked away.
I've focused so far on how bringing in Esch's mother increases the horror of the dog's labor. But it's also true, and perhaps more important, that the merging of the two scenes enhances our perception of Esch and her mother.
It's worth noting that the portion describing her mother is nothing but ugly: "snagging on her insides." Then the part describing the dog is where the flowers are. By describing two scenes of labor in one passage, Ward makes one a metaphor for the other, obviously. Reversing the expected descriptions heightens the connection between the two scenes and strengthens that metaphor.
The reversed descriptions, as well as the casting back mentioned earlier, help us to see the metaphor as one that goes both ways. It's not just that the dog's labor is described by way of the mother, but that Esch's mother's death becomes more visceral when witnessed through the dog.
Experiencing this metaphor in both directions is crucial to understanding Esch. She doesn't see her mother as just a means to describe China, but as an actual presence in that moment. China's agony is, instead, a way to describe her mother.
All of the techniques I've described are ends in themselves, worth doing just because they make the scene more powerful. But they're also a means to something else.
The scene occurs before Esch knows she's pregnant. So when we learn of the pregnancy, all of the beauty, longing, violence, and cruelty of are waiting to land on it. The reader can't help but connect the three pregnancies and assign the properties of the first two to the third.
In fact, I think the scene adds emotional resonance to every revelation. The ease with which she evokes her mother, in this scene as well as in other bleed-through moments, teaches us that Esch is thinking of her constantly, even when she doesn't say so. The reader becomes haunted by Esch's mother too, feeling her loss as a particular type of presence behind all of the action in the story.
Because of the two-way metaphor described earlier, which links China's violent delivery to the mother's tragic one, the violence and brutality of the dog's scene travels with all of Esch's memories of her mother. Esch doesn't have a reason to think constantly of China giving birth, at least not like she does of her mother, but the two scenes have merged for the reader, so each contains the meaning of the other. Thus every time Esch compares a real-time event to her mother, and even when the reader thinks of the mother unprompted, the reader gets that sense of beauty, longing, and horrific violence.
It took me an amazingly long time, as a writer, to appreciate the metaphor inherent in "background." As the term is used in fiction, it means the relevant history of a character. But, of course, the word itself evokes the sense of setting or landscape. This scene is a great example of that.
Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.