Bookshelf – Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

This is a beautiful, emotionally challenging book about what happens when the complex pull of family abuts the hard truths of the world: Life is not fair, some people can’t escape suffering, and misplaced solace, no matter how inviting, often leads to more pain.

These truths, depicted with both savage and elegant bluntness by Jesmyn Ward, made “Salvage the Bones” hard to read. As calamity upon calamity falls upon the 15-year-old narrator, her three brothers, and their father, a family less alive than surviving, I wondered, alternately angered by the injustice and saddened by the grinding inevitability of their fate, How can anyone live like this? How can we morally allow our neighbors to live like this?

For the family – daughter Esch, sons Randall, Skeetah, and Junior, and Daddy – the questions are existential. It is 1995, and their Mississippi bayou town sits in the sights of Hurricane Katrina. However, the coming threat remains secondary to the urgencies of daily life: Esch’s need for love, Skeetah’s dog-fighting dreams, Randall’s basketball fantasy. Only Daddy tries to prepare – until he cannot.

What Ward does so well is not blink before the storm. She infuses her powerful prose with blood. She highlights sibling tenderness and then stains it with feral immorality: stealing is sanctioned, as is drunkenness, animal cruelty, and sexual abuse. She offers no hope, only endurance – which, as it turns out, is the more useful tool.

“Salvage the Bones” rewards those who persist, those who endure its harder passages. The closing section of the book, when Katrina engulfs the town, is a potent literary punch, mighty words crafted in full flex. Along with roads and houses and land, the storm sweeps away pain. What it leaves behind are better angels who emerge under the clearing skies and discover within them yet another truth: Life goes on. Dawn brings a new day.

Bookshelf – The Trees

Finally, a way to never be disappointed by yet another so-so book: Only read what Percival Everett writes.

A few weeks ago, I gushed over “James,” Everett’s current reimagining of “The Tales of Huckleberry Finn,” this time told from the perspective of Jim, the slave. Seeing my comments in an online book group, someone suggested that “The Trees” was equally terrific.

And it is.

“The Trees” also uses history as a fulcrum, in this case the 1955 murder in Mississippi of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was tortured, shot and lynched after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. Till was one of more than 4,000 Black victims of lynching and other documented acts of racial terrorism that occurred in the United States between the Civil War and World War II. (Read more:

Set in the present day in Money, Mississippi (where Till was killed), “The Trees” begins as a crime story: A white resident, Junior Junior, turns up dead and emasculated in his home. Near his bloody corpse lies the body of a Black man. Both cadavers are hauled to the morgue, but that of the Black man disappears, only to reappear again in similar circumstances.

When the dead won’t stay dead, it’s a mystery enough for the state police to send a pair of Black detectives to Money, where they find a townful of cartoonish Southern crackers, a 105-year-old great-grandmother who has amassed thousands of files about lynchings, and a passing-for-white diner waitress who is hiding more than her skin color.

Little by little, “The Trees” reveals itself to be less of a crime story and more of an artful, incisive indictment of America’s shameful past and of the shameless persistence of racist values disguised as regional culture.

Everett pulls off this impeachment with a mix of violence, sarcasm, caricature, and humor (the latter especially evident in the book’s wonderful dialogues). To say more is to reveal too much, so I’ll end with this: “The Trees” is inventive, entertaining, and enlightening, a virtuoso work that anyone who loves good books should read.