She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. As the story opens, Esch realizes she’s pregnant by an older boy named Manny. “He was the sun,” she swoons. A junior in high school with a thirst for books, Esch is devouring Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology,” vibrating in sympathy with Medea’s boundless passion. “When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her,” Esch says, “I know her.” She laps up the ardor of that fiery myth and continually translates her own unrequited love into the tropes of those ancient stories. “In every one of the Greek’s mythology tales,” she notices, “there is this: a man chasing a woman, or a woman chasing a man. There is never a meeting in the middle.”
A palpable sense of desire and sorrow animates every page here (and how surprisingly Ward employs the classics). Without her mother, and with a father who moves clumsily along the edge of their lives, Esch is struggling to figure out what love is. Can it be the unyielding ache she feels for a boy who rejects her? Can it be the sense of care she feels for her elfin youngest sibling, who plays among the garbage and rusting trucks in the yard? Or is true love closer to what her older brother Skeetah feels for his pit bull, China?
That relationship between a boy and his dog was the genesis of Ward’s novel, and it remains the most striking aspect of the story. Skeetah’s affection for China shimmers with that transcendent understanding you see sometimes between owners and their animals, and in this case, it’s a bond fraught with contradictory allusions, from “Sounder” to Michael Vick. Skeetah’s entire life revolves around his beloved dog and the five fragile puppies she gives birth to at the opening of the novel. But he also pits China against other dogs in illegal fights that provide the book’s bloodiest scenes. This may be Ward’s most masterful move: her ability to capture the tenderness between a boy and his dog, while also rendering their joint enthusiasm for these vicious fights sickeningly believable.
But to be honest, everything in “Salvage the Bones” sounds believable, even the fantastical climax that most of us only watched from a distance on TV. Ward survived Katrina with her family in De Lisle, Miss., and her description of the storm, the blind terror, the force of wind and water, is filled with visceral panic. What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion. Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” is an odds-on favorite for the National Book Award, partly because it’s the only well-known novel among the finalists, but “Salvage the Bones” has the aura of a classic about it.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.