And the Award Goes to…

The National Book Award is one of the top literary prizes for American authors. The award is given to recognize achievements in four genres: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature. I occasionally browse through the lists of nominees and winners when looking for something to read. Although I have found some of the books too dense or difficult, others are real gems.
When the 2011 National Book Award for fiction was given to Jesmyn Ward for her novel Salvage the Bones, I picked up a copy with a fair amount of skepticism. Reading about a fourteen-year-old, pregnant teen living in abject poverty sounded like too much of a downer. But once I started reading, I became enthralled. Salvage the Bones is a gem, best described as a diamond in the rough. It is a wrenching story of rural hardship during the approaching days of Hurricane Katrina. Fourteen-year-old Esche and her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior rely on grit and desperate dreams to eke out an existence in their Mississippi backwater home.

When asked during an interview with Paris Review how she came up with the book’s title, Ms. Ward replied, “The word salvage is phonetically close to savage. At home, among the young, there is honor in that term. It says that come hell or high water, Katrina or oil spill, hunger or heat, you are strong, you are fierce, and you possess hope.”

Despite the doom and gloom, the writing is lyrical. I found Eshe’s observations of life around her poignant and poetic. Her strength of character is a marvel to behold. Parts of the book are not for the squeamish; Esch’s brother breeds and trains pit bulls to be championship dogfighters, and the violence depicted in these fights was tough reading.

Salvage the Bones, while not a “fun” read, is a terrific book for those who are interested in good writing, vivid descriptions, and a haunting story that won’t easily be forgotten.

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