Salvaging the bones on storm-tossed shores

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For me, literature offers solace and catharsis. I had to cancel my book talk scheduled for last week. Ironically, the book was “Salvage the Bones,” by Jesmyn Ward. The novel, a National Book Award winner, tells the story of an impoverished family on the Mississippi gulf coast in the days before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. I can’t get it out of my head as I move around town and see people putting their lives back together.

Asked why she wrote this book, which is brutal in its detail of deprivation and violence, Ward said, “My family and I survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We left my grandmother’s flooding house, we were refused shelter by a white family and took refuge in trucks in an open field during a Category Five hurricane. I saw an entire town demolished, people fighting over water, breaking open caskets searching for something that could help them survive … I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.”

In an NPR interview, she said of living through the storm, “My mother lay down on the floor and put her head in my sister’s lap. I sat on the porch, barefoot and shaking. The sky turned orange and the wind sounded like fighter jets … I understood then how that hurricane, like Camille, had unmade the world, tree by water by house by person …”

For most of us, the loss has not been as profound. We are dealing with insurance companies and restoration services and construction firms. In her novel, Ward writes of Katrina, “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies … She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land … She left us to salvage.”

The storms of our time, the epic devastation, leave their marks on the land and in our hearts. Every hurricane brings a different version of the same nightmare. But one thing is always true and constant: Refugees of the storm, in New Orleans or Mississippi or New York, buoyed only by one another, clutching to the fragments of their former lives, always lift themselves up to face another day.

Copyright © 2012 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at

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