After devouring Jesmyn Ward's stunning new novel Salvage the Bones, it is no surprise to me that in December, this, her second novel, won the 2011 US National Book Award for fiction. She is the best contemporary writer I have read in quite a while. Like many superb new fiction writers, it took a long time for her writing to get noticed; no doubt another a sign of the deep shit the publishing business is in. Salvage the Bones is written in the voice of fifteen-year-old pregnant Esch, as she and her brothers, their alcoholic father, and a pit bull mother called China get ready for Hurricane Katrina. Of course, who could ever get ready for such a catastrophe? Certainly not this poor black family living in squalor in the Mississippi coastal backwoods. Ward's writing is as savage as the circumstances Esch and her family and their friends live in every day, and yet it is beautiful too. For me the most powerful message was about sibling love; a love that left me in no doubt that this is a bond that will last for Esch and her brothers' lifetimes.
I read this book (almost in one long sitting) immediately after my husband and I returned from a 10-day family holiday with our daughter, her partner, their three children and their dog. Perhaps that's why the strongest message I took from Ward's book was about the power of sibling bonds. The contrasts are massive but the similarities are more important. Esche's story and our holiday both took place over 10 days. The wild west coast of the South Island of New Zealand where we rented a holiday shack is far from the coastal backwoods of Mississippi, although they are both rural, wild, and beautiful. Esche and her brothers are black, motherless and neglected by their father, and our grandchildren are the opposite of those descriptors. Both sets of children have faced two of the worst environmental disasters in recent years; Esche's family lived through Katrina, and our grandchildren, whose home is in Christchurch, have experienced four major, destructive earthquakes and 8000 smaller ones over a period of 16 months. But it is the sibling love that makes these two families alike. Of course the 8 and 4-year old in our family screech at each other at least once a day, but those moments are dwarfed by the fun they have together. But what is really heart warming is the bond they show for their 3-month-old brother. His 8-year-old sister is clearly the other sun in his sky (along with his mother), and even when he is lovingly dragged about by the 4-year-old, not once did I see him fuss or cry. As soon as either sibling enters his field of view, he is chuckling and ready to tango.
Much is written about sibling rivalry, and for children born close together this can be an issue, but how much more important it is to focus on the bond and love that is so natural between children who share their genes, similar values and similar parenting. The relationship between siblings potentially lasts longer than any other relationship; from birth to death. Your brothers and sisters will be hanging around long before you meet your future partner, and they will still be there long after your parents have bowed out.