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For our February Readers’ Review: a novel set near the Mississippi coast in the days leading up to and right after Hurricane Katrina. “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award and became a best-seller. It tells the story of a dirt poor African American family. They prepare for one of the worst storms in American history as best as they can. They cannot evacuate, as their white neighbors do. But they have each other. And that becomes the key to their survival. Diane and her guests discuss this story of love and loyalty, resilience and rebirth.
- Dana Williams professor of African American literature and chair of the English department at Howard University.
- E. Ethelbert Miller poet; director, African American Resource Center at Howard University; board chair, Institute for Policy Studies.
- Olivia Golden executive director, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP); former assistant secretary for children and families, Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration; author of "Reforming Child Welfare."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In the novel, "Salvage the Bones," by Jesmyn Ward, Hurricane Katrina lives in the background. It's narrated by a poor African American teenage girl living in coastal Mississippi. As her family prepares for the storm, we see the harsh realities of the daily lives. We witness the intense loyalty they have for each other, necessary for their very survival. Joining me in this studio for this month's "Reader's Review" of "Salvage the Bones," Dana Williams of Howard University.
MS. DIANE REHME. Ethelbert Miller, writer and poet. And Olivia Golden of Center for Law and Social Policy. Do join us. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MS. DANA WILLIAMSGreat to be here.
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERGreat to be here.
MS. OLIVIA GOLDENThank you so much for having us.
REHMGood to see you all. Dana Williams, Esch, E-S-C-H, is the narrator of the novel. Tell us about her.
WILLIAMSIt's interesting the way that she's described, from the critics and the reviewers, to the way that Jesmyn actually describes her in the interviews that she's given. And she's actually interestingly familiar to me, having grown up in rural Louisiana, so the idea of a person who's a full personality, but not quite understood by the reader that she imagines and has to explain herself, I found absolutely fascinating.
REHMWhen you say she has to explain herself, what do you mean?
WILLIAMSWell, I think she imagines, interestingly enough, a gaze, but is able to describe what is going without thinking about the fact that she's talking to the reader. So she knows that we're eavesdropping. She knows that she's talking to us, but she's also very familiar with her space and very comfortable. And an incredibly confident narrator.
REHMWell, I was struck by the contrast between her conversation with her brothers and the way she talks with us, Olivia.
GOLDENI was very struck by the same thing, that she's talking with her family, and her brothers in the words that a teenager, a black teenager in rural Mississippi would be using. Her words for the reader are -- I like that phrase about whose gaze she's thinking about. She's thinking -- she's able to talk about her life in connection to literature. Clearly, the English teacher at school, that's been a powerful connection. And she's -- I just thought she was an extraordinarily powerful voice.
REHMI was imagining her as the novelist as a young woman. I mean, the vividness, the extent to which there's no self pity at all. She's conveying how extraordinarily hard it is to be poor, reading it as someone who's not poor, you see how everything takes many days more work that it does for someone else. But for her, it's a vivid experience that she's conveying with passion and metaphor, but never with even a trace of feeling sorry for herself.
MILLERWell, I think -- I'm glad you brought up the thing about literature, because I think that this book is key in terms of how she identifies with Greek mythology. You know? And that has a lot to do with shaping the book. I also like the relationship that she has with her brothers. There's definitely a sense of compassion. It's also a concern, in terms of she is the only girl in the family. But you begin to see that her mother, who died giving birth to Junior, the youngest child, there's a connection there.
MILLERSo, I like how that's shaped here in the book. And then I like how we also have this Katrina storm in the distance, that we know it's coming in.
REHMAh, yes. Dana.
WILLIAMSIt's an interesting conversation for me, because one of the things that the book forced me to do was to think about the ways that we talk about literature. So, of course I wanted to look at some of the reviews, to think about how it had been portrayed, and what I was most struck by were the frequent comments of her poverty as a narrator. Which, as you say, she asked for no sympathy for. But, and having not grown up similarly, but in that rural space, I understand that it was completely irrelevant.
WILLIAMSLike, her poverty, the fact that her family was poor, meant absolutely nothing to her. It was just a part of her reality, right? So, they have to steal food, but they don't, because he's stealing food for the dog. And so the father goes to give the money, and they say, where are you gonna get the money from? And he says, don't get caught. That's it. And that's the brother, it's not the father. And then the other thing that was most frequently talked about was the mythology in the book, which interestingly enough, I thought was thrown in.
WILLIAMSIt didn't work for me. It didn't work for me, in part, because I think she wants us to understand that she is a reader. Esch, that is, and that she's reading this as a part of an assignment. But what Ward suggests, in terms of wanting to see the rural story put in the conversation with the universal...
WILLIAMSI thought is always challenging for me, because it seemed forced, and there are mythologies in that space that she shows us. And that's the beauty of the book for me.
REHMBut how did that contrast between her voice with her family and her voice to us, how did that work for you?
GOLDENWell, I guess to me, her poverty is very relevant to the project of the book, even if not -- and I actually think it's relevant to her in several moments. The moment where she, that middle chapter, where she's really coming to terms with the fact that she's pregnant. She goes through what her options would be for a baby that she says, at that moment, it's not how she feels at the end, nobody wants. And what are my choices? And she explains why none of her choices is possible.
GOLDENNobody could take me to the Health Clinic. I wouldn't have the money. So, she's, you know, she's growing up. She's seeing a bit of the outside world and the way her options are constrained. So, the way I thought about the language is that to me, the author's project, which worked for me, was to pick someone who, if someone outside heard the narrow description, a 15-year-old girl who's pregnant, motherless, living on the Mississippi coast, awaiting Katrina, it would be easy to have a stereotype of her as not an extraordinary, heroic figure.
GOLDENBut you see it, you hear her voice, and so what you realize, by the end -- I mean, I'm in the some ways the policy person. I think I got invited to give that voice. And so I kept thinking, someone's gonna ask me whether 15-year-old teen parents are typical, and of course, the answer is they're not. We have very low, you know, the rates of teen pregnancy are lower than they've been for 40 years. But, I think of the author's project as taking somebody who you might have the most stereotypes about and showing you that she herself is an extraordinary heroine of courage and determination in her own story.
REHMDana, why don't you read for us from the very beginning of the book? It gives us sort of a sense of who Esch is.
WILLIAMSThe novel opens with, well, there are 12 days, and it opens with the birth of Chynna, the pit bull, with whom her brother is very concerned and very caring, with his birth, or the dog's birth of her first litter. "Chynna's turned on herself. If I didn't know, I would think she was trying to eat her paws. I would think that she was crazy, which she is, in a way. Won't let nobody touch her but Skeet. When she was a big headed pit bull puppy, she stole all the shoes in the house, all our black tennis shoes mama bought because they hide dirt and hold up until they're beaten soft.
WILLIAMSOnly Mama's forgotten sandals. Thin heeled and tinted pink, with so much red mud seeped into them looked different. Chynna hid them all under furniture, behind the toilet, stacked them in piles and slept on them. When the dog was old enough to run and trip down the steps on her own, she took the shoes outside, put them in shallow ditches under the house. She'd stand rigid as a pine when we tried to take them away from her. Now Chynna is giving like she once took away.
WILLIAMSBestowing where she once stole. She's birthing puppies. What Chynna is doing is nothing like what Mama did when she had my youngest brother Junior. Mama gave birth in the house she bore all of us in. Here in this gap in the woods, her father cleared and built on that we now the pit. Me, the only girl, and the youngest at eight, was of no help. Although Daddy said she told him, she didn't need any help. Daddy said that Randal and Skeetah and me came fast, that mama had all of us in her bed, under her own bare burning bulb.
WILLIAMSSo when it was time for Junior, she thought she could do the same. It didn't work that way. Mama squatted, screamed toward the end. Junior came out purple as blue as 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. She said she didn't want to go to the hospital. Daddy dragged her from the bed, to his truck, trailing her blood and we never saw her again."
REHMExtraordinary opening of a book, I think. And it's fascinating to me how central a figure Chynna, the dog, is Ethelbert.
MILLERWell, you know, when we look at this book, you know, the pit where they live, and the dog is a pit bull. That's a connection. Also, this whole thing of giving birth will be key in terms of dealing with Esch. Also the whole thing of giving birth in terms of her mother and also in terms of Medea, in terms of Greek mythology, so you have that. Just to say, I'm not an expert on Greek mythology, but I think on this first page, the reference to all the shoes is linked to Jason, who, I think, in one of the scenes in the myth, is seen with one shoe. So, it's a whole connection, and we'll know at the end of this book that Skeetah's name is actually Jason.
MILLERSo there's a connection from the first page all the way to the end of the book. And when he's looking for Chynna, it's almost like he's looking for the golden fleece. So there's a connection there, in terms of how this all holds together from the first page all the way to the last. But there's things, in terms of reference to dogs, water, dirt, all these things, I think Ward keeps weaving in and out, in and out of the text.
REHME. Ethelbert Miller. He's poet, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University and Chair of the Board of the Institute for Policy Studies. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMThe book we're talking about for this month's Readers' Review is a National Best Seller and the National Book Award winner "Salvage the Bones" by Jesmyn Ward. And here with me, Ethelbert Miller of Howard University and Institute for Policy Studies. Olivia Golden, she's executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy. Dana Williams is professor of African American literature and chair of the English Department at Howard University.
REHMHere is a comment on our website saying, "I read 'Salvage the Bones' several months ago. It has really stayed with me. The more time passes the stronger its impact on me. The atmosphere lingers. There are storms and spaces of brilliant light. The young girl in this story is a study in resilience and bravery." Ethelbert, I know you wanted to comment.
MILLERYeah, I want to comment and one thing I like about this book is that it tells us that in 2005 Katrina was not just about New Orleans. You know, that, you know, sometimes when we look back we say, oh Katrina, New Orleans. But people were hit hard in Mississippi and elsewhere. And I think that's very important because here you have a writer from Mississippi who begins to say, okay, I'm a writer. I can tell the story that perhaps is not being told and give voice to these people.
MILLERIt's also similar to, like, a work that we see in terms of August Wilson. White people are not centered to this book. They're extremely like marginal, or if they are even at all. And I think that has a lot to do in terms of a generation of African American writers who realize that they can write about their community in depth, and they can write about things that might be painful to write about.
MILLERYou know, I mean, when I look at this book I'm right back in 2007. I'm thinking about Michael Vick, you know, with the dog fighting coming out of the South Bronx. That was -- you know, that was not my experience in terms of dog fighting. There was other things happening in the South Bronx but that was something else. So this book, I think for me, you know, was working on a number of levels that for other writers it's instructional.
REHMI had some problems with the idea of China as a pit bull being groomed to fight other dogs. How did you see it?
GOLDENWell, I was very struck and maybe I can read a couple of phrases from the middle chapter whereas I say, she's coming to terms with being a mother herself. And she has -- it's a wonderful weaving together that I think Ethelbert was talking to. The central action of the chapter is Skeetah her brother giving an injection to the dog, to China. But the reflections that go through Esch's mind are about her own mother. Her own mother taking care of her when she had chicken pox, her own mother combining being a lover and a partner with being a mother.
GOLDENThey're about her little brother. She has this wonderful phrase, junior's forever the puppy weaned too soon because he was just seven or eight when the mother died and never had mothering, and that's shown up. And she has China. And there what she reflects on is about the mix of strength and -- you know, we had from the reader a study in resilience and bravery. So she's thinking about how can you be a study in resilience and bravery and strength and fight and be a mother?
GOLDENAnd so there's this exchange between her brother Skeetah and Manny who is the father of her child and the example of someone who's a scoundrel, who's treated -- who has exploited her.
REHMTruly a scoundrel.
GOLDENAnd so her brother is saying -- is having an exchange with Manny where Manny is arguing that the dog is now not able to fight because she's given birth. And Skeetah is taking that to be about the girl. So he says, any -- so Manny says, any dog give birth like that is less strong after. Even if you don't think it, take a lot out of an animal to nurse and nurture like that, price of being female. Skeetah laughs. It sounds as if it's hacking its way out of him. You serious? That's when they come into they strength. They got something to protect. He glances at me too but I feel it even after he looks away. That's power.
GOLDENAnd a little bit later, this is Skeetah again, to give life -- Skeetah bends down to China, feels her from neck to jaw, caresses her face like he would kiss her -- is to know what's worth fighting for and what's love. And so I -- I mean, again, I guess it's both -- I had a reaction emotionally to that struggle and in policy terms, I mean, it is about what's it going to take for Esch to be able to raise that baby successfully? What does it mean to be able to be a mother and fight for yourself and your child?
REHMAnd of course Esch says that she had her first sexual experience at age 12. She's now 15. She is crazy about Manny. He has clearly taken advantage of her because he knows she's crazy about him, and has used her really as a sexual implement.
WILLIAMSOne of the things that I think works well about the book is the way that it blurs lines. At least it did for me, things that would otherwise seem very clear. So even with the dog fighting it made me think about everything from the brutality of it, but then Skeetah's love of the dog. You want to root for the dog in really ironic ways. So you're watching this fight that she narrates rather masterfully because you can see the fight. And so you're seeing how problematic it is. But you also don't want anything to happen to the dog.
WILLIAMSSo there's this protectivism or this sense of wanting somehow the dog to win in a fight that you don't want to happen to begin with.
WILLIAMSAnd I think about that with Manny as well because you want to hate him and he's hateable, certainly because she is young. He does take advantage of the affection. But I also found him somewhat sympathetic at different points, particularly when he sees her in the bathroom at that basketball game. And he doesn't know why he's drawn to her but he is. I think that he has this sense that there's something special and strong about her. And one of the earlier moments that we see him interacting with his girlfriend, the person that he's public with, the first thing they say is, what are you doing here? Oh, you're trying to get away from your girlfriend.
WILLIAMSSo there's that moment where you understand that he too is looking for something that he may be able to find in Esch. But he's very mean spirited about the pregnancy. But how else would he react?
REHMNow we haven't talked about Esch and Skeetah's dad who all through the book feels, knows in his soul a storm is coming.
MILLERI think I'm glad you say this because, you know, we've been talking about, you know, the -- Esch, the black girl. This is a very powerful story in terms of the black man, okay, in terms of here you have, you know, Esch's father who is really concerned, you know. He has a sense of the histories of the storm. He really wants to protect his family as best he can.
MILLERPhysically protects his family, gives them instructions, you know. But throughout this whole preparation...
REHMNobody's paying attention to him.
MILLER...no paying attention. You also really see how much he misses his wife. Okay, that's key. And then a very strong symbolic act occurs in this book in which, you know, he loses his fingers. He loses the fingers in which his wedding ring is on. And to have the child that died in child -- that caused his wife to die, to discover the ring I think is also very interesting.
MILLERI just want to read this one line because we were reading from it.
MILLERAnd it ties into what Dana was saying and Olivia. In every one of the Greek's mythology tales there's this, a man chasing a woman or a woman chasing a man. There's never a meeting in the middle. I like to feel that Esch's mother and father meet in the middle during this storm because he misses her presence there. You know, I think in terms of trying to save the children, I think that you begin to see the older woman, Mrs. Bernadine, I think Big Henry's mother, you know, filling this role as sort of the matriarch.
MILLERBut it's a very interesting thing in terms of black men. The relationship featuring the brothers is very important. I mean, when Esch leans into her big brother in terms of support and then Big Henry saying, look, you know, we're all the fathers of these children.
REHMExactly. Exactly. At the same time, I think it's important to point out that once his wife dies, the father becomes a total alcoholic. He cannot hold down a job. He doesn't know how to put food on the table. The family is broke.
GOLDENWell, and Esch sees him in part as someone who's inclined to bully and to humiliate. So -- and the tender side of him you mostly see in her memories of when her mother was alive when...
GOLDENAnd so to me it was -- again, it was partly a story of the way her mother's loss -- again, thinking about mothers and children -- reverberates for all of them. The father can't be a parent himself because he's so lost and unmoored. Her own life, her own sexual activity is probably about many things but partly it's about nobody to take care of her, and her brothers finding affection in taking care of the dog. And they're all in some ways struggling.
MILLERBut, again, I think even with all of this, even with all the things about drinking and stuff, this man is still trying to protect his family.
MILLERHe is still, you know, trying to get help. He can't lift things by himself. He's trying to get help and he's doing the best he can. I think we have to focus on that.
REHMIt's not until page 124 that the words Katrina is pronounced, and it is looming. You know, you sort of feel it throughout that something bad is coming.
WILLIAMSAnd of course her father and her mother have experienced a storm before so she's heard what that kind of thing looks like. And her father does know that it's coming. And he talks about it, everything from a sixth sense to a clear kind of awareness. But she emerges -- Esch emerges in a very tender moment with her father after the storm in that last chapter that's title Alive. And she tells her father -- or actually she doesn't say anything to him initially. She just recognizes it.
WILLIAMSAnd she says, I scooted past Daddy whose eyes were closed as he mumbled against his maimed hand and his good hand, which were folded like he was praying, past Randall who still held Junior who still held his hand over his eyes to Skeetah. It keeps a little bit. She touches him. His skin was hot as if he'd been running, as if the day was blazing bright. He jerked but didn't look back at me as he scanned the boiling water, the trees popping and flying. The old washing machine spinning like a bumper car around the yard. The wind ripping the land away.
WILLIAMSI failed her, he said. He blinked hard. No, you didn't, I spoke into his neck. Yes, he said. His voice sounded like a rake being dragged over rocks. You didn't fail us, I said. He shook his head and his cheek brushed my forehead. The muscles under his jaw were jumping. He started to shake. I hugged him tighter, held him the way I embrace those boys, because it was easier to let them get what they wanted instead of denying them, instead of making them see. My arms had never been so strong. They can't exist without each other.
GOLDENAnd that's -- I mean, Skeetah saved her and lost the dog, yeah.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." These pit bulls, tell me about that. Is that something that, you know, in various parts of the country is just what happens?
MILLERWell, I know at one time I saw a pit bull, I was over on the other side of the street, you know. But, you know, in the fence, because we had a lot of discussion of pit bulls -- you know, people who own pit bulls will tell you that they're one of the most loyal dogs.
MILLERLoving, you know.
REHMAnd loving. But these pit bulls in this novel are bred to fight, bred to be strong, bred to attack.
WILLIAMSWell, you see, I think that's the part of the challenge that I found with trying to grapple with the mythology because I think you're right, Ethelbert, it works well throughout for what she's trying to do. I mean, she makes the parallels. But what she refuses to do to some degree is to allow her own story to be its own mythology. And so that relates to me through the pit bull fight because it's a conversation that we're less willing to have.
WILLIAMSThere's a competitive nature in American society that says, someone must win, someone must lose, someone must take, someone must then be taken from. So what you see -- at least the way that I read this fight is a space that is completely void of the option for aggressive competition in a healthy way. So you recreated in these very unhealthy ways because there's this narrative that we promote of wining at any cost. And so the narrative is trying desperately to fight against that.
WILLIAMSAnd in the end the narrative wins and says we must coalesce. We must release these things that pit us against each other. But this family is so clear about what community means to dump that in this western myth that does not understand community is where -- is the single place, I think, that the narrative struggles. I don't think that it fails but I think it struggles to validate its own story. And that's the very objective of the story.
MILLERAnd I would say in terms of China, this is one of the dogs that Skeetah was able to keep because he had lost a lot of dogs to other guys.
MILLERSo this becomes a special dog that he's entering into this contest. But there is this sort of pride. It does seem also, even with the fight, there is this adherence to rules, you know, when you pull your dog back. And I think that's important in terms of when you hear some of the dog fighting, it's to the dogs who are fighting to their death.
REHMTo the death, absolutely.
GOLDENI just wanted to comment on the role that myth plays because it's interesting. I guess, again, maybe it's in part because of what I was reading it for. But I thought it worked because I put less weigh on it, that is to me it was about a young woman who's extraordinary and who hasn't encountered very many things in her life that would tell her she was extraordinary. And so it almost in some ways didn't matter what the story line -- I mean, clearly the author uses it in very rich ways but to some degree it was almost, this is what I've got. This particular myth of Jason and Medea and that's what makes me be able to see my life as extraordinary.
GOLDENThe time you had me on before on this show was "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" about a girl a couple years younger, about the same age actually by the end, growing up very poor in New York, Irish, in the early part of the 20th century. And they're different in many ways but they have in common, perhaps because the authors of them are both novelists, that something created this spark that enabled them to see themselves in these very different terms.
REHMIs Esch daily going to school? Do you get that impression?
GOLDENThis is the summer so she's not now but school seems to be the one part of a broader world that's centrally present.
REHMAnd does school mean a great deal to her?
GOLDENWell, my answer would be that that English teacher clearly does.
GOLDENThere's clearly been a spark. The social context of school, the bleachers, the fights among kids, who knows, but somebody there has sparked her.
MILLERAnd the school, I think, has to represent a sense of opportunity because the basketball game is at the school. And so, you know, there's a lot of things in terms of hope to Randall, you know, this might be the place where you got to go to camp...
MILLER...and things of that sort. So the school is a backdrop for a place almost like the Pit.
REHMEthelbert Miller and we're talking about Jesmyn Ward's book "Salvage the Bones." I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about Jesmyn Ward's prize-winning book, "Salvage the Bones." Ron Charles in The Washington Post called it masterful. He said, "Salvage the Bones" has the aura of a classic about it. I'm fascinated with the fact that we have had no calls. I think what's happening is that people who have not yet read this book are enjoying your discussion and that others who have read it would like to hear your perspectives and compare it with their own. I'll offer that number again, 800-433-8850. Let's talk a little bit about Esch's mother, who she was and what it was she gave to Esch. Dana.
WILLIAMSI almost want to defer because I'm also familiar with the memoir, of course, where she talks a lot about her real mother and talks about how she envisions her mother in the mother in "Salvage the Bones," so I don't want to mix them up.
REHMAll right. All right. All right.
WILLIAMSI don't want to project...
WILLIAMS...her mother -- her real mother onto the...
REHMHow about you, Olivia?
GOLDENWell, I guess I'm struck that she lost her mother so young that she remembers the tenderness. She talks about it as a pain like, you know, what people say about phantom pain when you lose a limb. But she's now a teenager and going to be a mother herself, and so some of what you have the sense she would've wanted to learn from a mother, how do you -- how do you do this? In the chapter we were reading from before where she's thinking about this, China, the dog, she's reflecting back to when they mated China with another pit bull to create the litter of puppies, and that China didn't like the submission and bit the other dog.
GOLDENAnd she's clearly thinking about, you know, how can you be strong and also have a strong man? How can you raise children? How can you do this? And so I sort of have the sense that her mother's absence from her being so young means that she has this sense of warmth, but not in some ways what she'll -- what she wishes she would've had to go forward.
REHMAnd yet she describes her as tough and resourceful. Talk about the scene where mama catches a shark.
MILLERYeah, there's a -- in there you see it involves water, which is very important to the novel. And what you see is that mama is a woman that is not going to let Esche's father take the pole from her, that she's going to bring the shark in herself and take pride in actual catching of it. And then her femininity comes in where she cooks it at the end and makes it up.
REHMYes, of course.
MILLERSo, you know, you see both things, I can catch this and I can cook it, you know. And so I think that's a very instructional thing. And once again, as you can see, just like the storm, it involves water as being essential to the story.
REHMAnd she says, the last time mama went with us to the bay, daddy flipped his line backward to cast it out over the water and caught her palm with his hook. The barbed needle sank in deep. She pulled it out, rinsed it off in the water we were swimming in. Tough lady. Didn't go to the hospital. Didn't go get a tetanus shot. Just pulled it out.
GOLDENSo I think that's all true and all part of it. I did want to note health as a theme though. Again, I'm sort of here partly as the policy person. And one of the ways the context of the world is here is that illness, death and injury are an enormous part, and being able to get the ordinary level of healthcare that...
REHMJust not there.
GOLDEN...that other people expect is not there. So if I think about what's the message, I think Ethelbert's right that the -- none of the essential characters is white and direct person to person conflict with white people is not a big part of the book there. They live very divided except in school. But a context where you just take for granted that none of that's there for you, where you take for granted that nobody's going to come help you get away from a storm, maybe somebody else, is just built into it. And so the institutional and historical constraints that make their lives what they are, are there in the background.
REHMHow much of a relationship do you see between Jesmyn Ward's description of her own mother and the mother in this book?
WILLIAMSIn "Men We Reaped," which is really about the men in her life, which is interesting because that's also what we see in "Salvage the Bones." She's writing around these very strong men figures. Her mother is very gentle, very tender, very deliberate, very caring. Her mother actually continues to work as a housekeeper in part because the man who owns the home that she is cleaning for has agreed to pay for her schooling.
WILLIAMSSo she gets the scholarship because otherwise she's a public school kid who's having a really difficult time with bullying, but who is clearly gifted and can't afford to go to this Episcopal school where she gets this wonderful education, and so she understands her mother's sacrifice, a willingness to work as a housekeeper for as long as she needs to go to school. So the way that she describes the way that her mother rallies around that family and the struggle that we see her and her family have around, as you suggest, Olivia, very systemic issues.
WILLIAMSAnd it's one of the things that I really like about her as a writer and which may cause some difficulty for her in the end in terms of audience because she's very clear about there being a systemic kind of policy related, racist, related to being in the rural south and then related to being a woman, all of these different things that have real issues tied to them structurally she doesn't back away from. And even the way that she talks about -- we were talking a little bit during the break about Faulkner and "As I Lay Dying."
WILLIAMSAnd she says -- she reads it and she thinks, this is a wonderful work. Why shouldn't I just quit? This is beautiful. Except he gets the black characters wrong. He gives them no humanity, and that is the role that she sees herself playing, giving the fullness of people's humanity to a story in ways so that they can see themselves. And she talks about writing for her own community and not being separated from that community. Growing up in that rural space you would think that she would never go back, and she goes back regularly, frequently, and almost refuses not to teach in the south.
WILLIAMSSo, I mean, it's an admirable thing, but it doesn't make for a very popular, kosher, happy times for the audience who wants a different kind of story.
GOLDENThough I'm going to make a pitch for why that audience should read it. I would just...
WILLIAMSOh, I agree, absolutely should.
GOLDENWhich is sort of two pieces. One that I think telling people a story about their own humanity really works powerfully, right? So it's not as though somebody white or more advantaged can't see themselves in it. The sibling's intensity is much greater because of the adversity, but that's a really powerful theme for many people's lives and for much policy, right, is the connections there. And then, you know, I said earlier that I was thinking about her choice to write about a 15-year-old teen mother, because when you're in the policy world, you often don't want to make that person the central part of your story, because you think people will say, but she made a bad choice.
GOLDENWhat she does -- I almost imagine the author daring the public a little bit and saying, I'm going to show you that even somebody you would otherwise look down on is extraordinary, is a poet, is...
GOLDEN...gifted, is heroic. And at the end of the story there for you just really want passionately both for her to succeed and for her baby to succeed.
GOLDENNot even out of compassion, but 'cause you think they'll make such a contribution.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. We'll go to Diane in West Palm Beach, Fla. Hi, you're on the air.
DIANEYes, I am. And thank you for allowing me this opportunity to make a few comments.
DIANEFirst off, I love the book. And I have to tell you that I had the book for several months before I ever read it. I was almost afraid to read the book. And I identified very quickly with many of the characters and many of the situations because I grew up in the rural south. I was a pregnant teenage statistic. And as I grew into adulthood, I became a professional in animal welfare.
DIANEAnd so my work centers around dog and animal fighting. And the part that I found so intriguing was Skeetah's love of China, even though he fought her. And it really made me question -- because I've always questioned how people who are involved in dog fighting can say they love their dogs. And, you know, this was -- you know, this really gave me a lot of food for thought.
REHMInteresting. All right. Ethelbert.
MILLERYou know, when you deal with simply domestic violence, and I think Carmen Rogers (sp?) has a poem about this, you know, when she's next door and her neighbors are fighting, and then when she goes to break it up, they turn against her, and they say, well, you know, we love each other. You know, I mean, what happens is it's a tough type of love, you know. But I go back to the opening comment the listener said and that she was afraid to pick up the book. I think that what makes us writers is to make sure that there isn't that fear, that once you pick this book up, you know that it's going to take you somewhere and you're going to grow and transform yourself.
MILLERYou know, that still means that you may have to do other things. You know, you're making kind of new fears. But I think you want to pick up a book and interact with it. And that's the thing where -- when we talk about building these libraries, I want these libraries to have windows, so that you read something, look up and imagine things like that. So maybe, you know, you're afraid when you pick it up, but then you learn some sort of courage from one of the characters, even if it's the dog.
REHMGood point. Let's go to Chris in Baltimore, Md. Hi there.
CHRISHi, Diane. I wanted to tell -- your comment that you didn't understand why anybody was calling was -- made me pick up the phone to call. So I'm a listener, but I've never called. And I said, no, I'm listening, I'm listening. So I got into the car after I've just been at a two and a half hour meeting with my community director. We were supposed to be going over a grant and ended up talking about problems in the community for the last two hours.
CHRISI wrote down the name of your -- of the book "Salvage the Bones" while I was driving because it -- I just thought that it was illustrating some of the points that were made during our conversation as we were talking about how a group of people from less fortunate backgrounds had moved into the community and the havoc that they were wreaking on the neighbors, and how there was such a difference in the way people were operating and communicating. Like the neighbors went over with a plate of brownies to welcome the people to the community and the young girl smacked the brownies out of the neighbor's hand saying, we don't need your handouts.
CHRISAnd just -- we were just talking about this and I was mentioning the fact that I have found in my travels around the globe that you can't take that personally, that you don't know what that person's experience has been that's led them to that point, so consider it an opportunity to make headway and change opinions, change perspectives and, you know, try to engage in a dialogue to understand where that other person's coming from. And so therefore I am really enjoying the comments...
CHRIS...the analysis of the book as I think that it's illustrating that point that was made.
CHRISAnd I thank your -- I thank your guests for doing so.
REHMThank you, Chris, for calling. You know, here's something I'm wondering about. What do you take from this book -- let me remind folks you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What do you take from this book that she has written about race relations, Dana?
WILLIAMSThere's a scene where China is being forced to fight because the dog -- there's a draw. There's a fight that's -- there's a dog that's substituting for China, and the prize is going to be China's puppies. They can't make a decision. Both teams think that the other dog has won. So Skeetah makes the decision to fight China, despite the fact that she's just had the babies, despite the fact that if she is damaged, then the babies don't live because her breast milk will be damaged.
WILLIAMSThe thing that makes China win is when Skeetah whispers, make them know. The dog can understand somehow that the only way you win is if you make them know. And he doesn't have to say make them know what. Esch doesn't tell us what make them know is. It's one of the few moments where we see the narrator move out of a kind of first person into a more omniscient because reasonably she can't hear what Skeetah whispers to China.
WILLIAMSSo what the book says to me that Ward is trying to suggest about race, the only way you get out of this absurd project of racism in America is to make them know. And it's not even about the gays. It's not about the other people. Only Skeetah and China have to know. And then you walk off with what is this ironic kind of victory. But there's something to the telling of your own story and getting it right and having other people be forced to recognize it, because they won't recognize it voluntarily.
REHMWhat about when Skeetah devises the plan to steal medication from a white man's house for the dog?
MILLERI know this is not Obamacare. I mean, what you're seeing here is that, okay, they're in the pit, and here it is, because of Parvo, the dog's been effected. It did die. What do you do? Okay. You don't have the medicine. What's that (unintelligible) where they go get -- the good people have all the medication up there in space somewhere. And what happens, okay, you have to protect your family. So what do you do? You're gonna maybe break some laws. But then what are the laws that are set up? Why is it an inequality? You see? But you have to go from the pit up to this house, it's in the distance, to get what they need.
GOLDENCan I just add two things? I really agree with Dana's points that in some ways the central theme here is that if you tell your own story powerfully enough, in the end people can recognize each other's humanity. But there are -- I want to -- for me there were a couple of other really striking things along the way. One is that she says that -- and her parents really went to segregated schools. She goes to school with white kids. And though it's not the school year and we don't know too much about those connections, she mentions that. And then at the very end, the storm has totally demolished the big seaside houses.
GOLDENAnd she says, where we used to feel poor and inferior, now they're gone too. And I don't know if that's meant as a note of hope, but perhaps it is, I guess, if you're optimistic.
WILLIAMSWell, she knows they get to rebuild. They get to rebuild.
MILLERIt's actually the wrath of God.
GOLDENIt's the wrath of God and maybe there's an opportunity for people to rebuild together, though it isn't -- wasn't in fact taken in Katrina, maybe that's the future.
REHMThe book is titled "Salvage the Bones." It won the National Book Award. Jesmyn Ward is the author. Dana Williams, Ethelbert Miller, Olivia Golden, thank you so much.
REHMI do want to let listeners know I'll be going off for a voice treatment and then I'm going on vacation, so I'll be off for a few weeks. You'll be in good hands with my colleagues. I'll see you again on the radio toward the end of March. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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