Mere days after Hurricane Irene swept up the east coast, Jesmyn Ward takes us back to Hurricane Katrina. The Paris Review published an interview with the author earlier this week, covering everything from the author’s experiences during Katrina, which impelled her to write Salvage the Bones, the novel’s links to mythology and poetry, and current attitudes toward teen moms (it’s quite an interview!).
Speaking of both hurricanes, I waited out Irene at home in Brooklyn while finishing Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun last weekend. (In retrospect, this was not a great idea, but it’s our faculty/staff bookgroup pick for the summer and I wanted to finish before we returned to school this week.) What an incredible story. Infuriating, upsetting, inspiring. A group of students at my school read it before going on a spring break service trip to New Orleans the year before last. I wish I had read it then so I might have talked with them about it. Now that group has graduated. Although the book itself does not involve teenagers, the opportunity to read one man’s experience of the days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina in the middle of New Orleans is compelling in itself. The injustice involved will strike a chord. I am adding this pair to my booktalk list for the upper grades.
Adult/High School–Fourteen-year-old Esch and her three brothers have a hardscrabble, impoverished life in the bayou. Motherless and caring for an alcoholic father, they each dream of escape from their chaotic and aimless home life. Seventeen-year-old Randall hopes to earn a place in an elite basketball camp and perform well enough to win a college scholarship, while his younger brother Skeets wants to parlay the litter of pups from his fighting dog, China, into several hundred dollars. Esch, newly pregnant, is certain the baby’s father will love her when he discovers that she is going to have his child. In the days that hurricane Katrina gathers toward category 5 status, the family members experience their own personal disasters, which inevitably pale in comparison to the devastation left when the storm finally hits and floods the bayou. With spare and eloquent language, Ward creates remarkably memorable characters, including the pit bull, China. All of them struggle to survive, to find nuture and sustenance in an amoral, indifferent environment of unforgiving poverty, merciless violence, and death. Teen readers will discover a world seldom depicted in the coverage of Katrina and gain a rare insight into the brutal world of backwoods dog-fighting. This is a beautiful yet disturbing book that should also find its way into the hands of upper division high school teachers who will find it a worthy addition to reading lists and literature discussions.–John Sexton, formerly at Westchester Library System, Tarrytown, NY