Where Community Equals Survival: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones vs. Beasts of a Southern Wild

by Zetta Elliott
Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn WardWhen I assigned Salvage the Bones in my upper-level literature class, I wasn’t sure my community college students would read the book. I’d already made several adjustments to the course on contemporary African American literature, and paired every novel with a film to reduce the amount of required reading. The vast majority of my students admitted that they didn’t read for recreation, and so finishing a 300-page novel was definitely a challenge for them. I didn’t tell them that I’d found the novel dense and a bit slow the first time I read it. Instead we started watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, and I told my students what it had been like for me to move from NYC to Baton Rouge, LA two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
Salvage the Bones is the antidote to a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is full of racist stereotypes and yet still appeals to many Black viewers. Hushpuppy is adorable with her white rubber boots and bronze Afro, and who doesn’t want to see a little Black girl vanquish rampaging mythical beasts? But the film is deeply flawed and fundamentally dishonest about the impact of poverty and neglect on Black girls, an issue Jesmyn Ward represents realistically—and heartbreakingly—in her novel. Hushpuppy’s perfect Afro drove me crazy because anyone who knows anything about Black hair knows that without daily care, that perfect aureole would become one massive, matted dreadlock. Beasts romanticizes poverty, turning squalor into scenery against which Hushpuppy remains innocent and pristine. But teenage Esch in Salvage the Bones isn’t so fortunate. Without a mother to nurture and guide her, she seeks wisdom in the Greek myths her class is studying. Her desire for romantic love leads her to be exploited and impregnated by a friend of her older brother, and when Manny rejects her, Esch cannot wreak revenge like powerful Medea; in the state of Mississippi, where only one abortion clinic remains open, impoverished Esch has no choice but to proceed with the pregnancy—the lone girl in a family of boys and men.

Ward’s depiction of brotherly devotion is incredibly moving, and the community’s response to the devastation affirms the humanity of Gulf Coast residents...

—Zetta Elliott

Ward’s depiction of brotherly devotion is incredibly moving, and the community’s response to the devastation affirms the humanity of Gulf Coast residents who are too often reduced to caricature; the drunk, indifferent, and/or hysterical buffoons found in Beasts of the Southern Wild have no place in Salvage the Bones, where community members pool their meager resources and do what they can to ensure each other’s survival. Not all of my students finished reading the novel, but our discussion proved that they appreciated the complexity Ward brought to a disaster that devastated and displaced so many families. And one student admitted that she read the novel twice because the first read left her wondering why it won the National Book Award. When she finished reading it a second time, she said she understood why it garnered so much acclaim and felt it ought to be taught in every high school. I couldn’t agree more.

Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. She is the author of twenty books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. She has served on the BookUpNYC faculty and currently lives in Brooklyn.