There were about a dozen of us sitting around a coffee table laden with chips and veggies. One of the members brought her famous whiskey cake. As a lifelong teetotaler — and cake lover — I reassured myself that all the alcohol burned off during baking.
Our subject for the evening was Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” which won the 2011 National Book Award. It’s a rich, devastating novel about a poor black family in Mississippi in the days before and during Hurricane Katrina.
One of the members, Barbara, began by asking each of us to describe our reaction to the novel in 30 seconds. It’s been a long time since I was an English teacher, but that struck me as a perfect opening: Even the shyest members could feel comfortable talking for just half-a-minute, while the most loquacious ones would be courteously reined in.
Everyone reported enjoying the novel. Most found it deeply moving. One woman confessed that she hadn’t finished most of the books they had read together (“Yes, you’ve told us that before,” someone muttered), but “Salvage the Bones” drew her in “like a vacuum.”
That sort of consensus about a book can be deadly for a group discussion; good conversation often needs to hang on the barbs of little disagreements. But consensus didn’t hamper these women. The conversation moved naturally and with great enthusiasm from Ward’s poetic style to her powerful characters.
Several members noted that they found the dogfighting scenes disturbing, as did I. (One of the siblings in “Salvage the Bones” is wholly devoted to his pit bull, who has a litter of valuable puppies.) But what struck me was that, even though every person in that room thought dogfighting is repugnant, there was no hint of condemnation in our discussion, no whiff of moral superiority. Instead, the novel challenged us to expand the circumference of our empathy. How, we wondered aloud, could this boy love his dog so much and subject her to such a violent sport? That question led to heartfelt observations about the way Ward’s novel illuminates the grinding effects of poverty and the counterbalance of love among these siblings.
It was a heartening reminder of what some good novels can offer if we’re willing to read with attention. None of these well-informed women came to this book naive — or unconcerned — about the alarming plight of the poor in America. But I think they all felt, as I did, that Ward challenged us to understand the complexity of lives very different than our own. Great works of literature push us in that direction. They flesh out our compassion.
Too grandiose for a casual meeting in somebody’s living room? I don’t think so.
In his slim book “On Moral Fiction” (1978), John Gardner argues that literature should “provide us with the flicker of lightning that shows us where we are.” That sort of electrifying insight helps keep a good life charged. A novel shouldn’t be a political statement, of course, but a good one necessarily provokes political reflection. It’s impossible to read “Salvage the Bones” and maintain the fantasy that what poor people in Mississippi really need is a cut in the estate tax or a work requirement to get medical care.
But we didn’t get into any of that that night. We just shared our appreciation for a story set down in gorgeous sentences that made us feel like we knew some people we hadn’t known before.
Ian McEwan can relax. The novel is going to be okay.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.