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Why I Teach Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward in My High School, a guest post by author Brendan Kiely

During our recent #SVYALit Project Hangout, author Brendan Kiely (The Gospel of Winter) mentioned that he taught the book Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward in his classroom. Today he is talking with us about teaching this book in his classroom, sharing the who, what, why and how his teens respond.

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones is the story of Esch, a 15-year-old girl who has recently discovered that she is pregnant, and her family’s struggle to survive Hurricane Katrina as it hits the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The novel takes place over the twelve days leading up to, during, and just after Katrina.  It is a shocking, heart wrenching, beautifully told story, and I use it in my 10thgrade English class because it is an expertly crafted novel that provides myriad possibilities of literary analysis and, even more importantly, inspires complicated discussions about important contemporary social issues that teenagers find meaningful, engaging, and personally relevant.

 
Esch’s family lives on the impoverished outskirts of the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, and although they know Katrina is on the way, they don’t have the means to leave and they have nowhere else to go.  Like most good stories, the characters are stuck in a seemingly impossible situation and have to find a way to look that danger in the eye, if not survive it.  For Esch’s family, while they scramble for food and try to prepare their home for the imminent disaster, it is the fierceness of their loyalty to each other that braces them for the storm.


The family is motherless, and so in the twelve days of the novel, Esch must also come to terms with the realities of becoming a mother on her own, in a life surrounded by boys and men. 


The novel is gripping, sometimes terrifying, and ultimately transcendent because lurking just below the surface of the gritty realism and gorgeous prose is the pulsing and haunting influence of the myth of Medea.


During our year together, I want to help students better understand how to read actively and write analytically, and I structure the practice of these skills with texts I think my students will find challenging and will also enjoy and which force us to confront, in a safe community of open-minded learners, conversations that examine contemporary social issues and conflicts. 

 
The teens I teach love Salvage the Bones because they connect with the way Esch articulates her emotional state—her complicated and very real conflicting desires—and they also love it because Esch and her family’s struggle becomes a springboard for conversations about difficult issues my students are eager to discuss, debate and learn more about because they find them immediately relevant to their own lives: teen pregnancy, consent in sexual relationships, the pressure of sex as a form of social acceptance, single parent homes, poverty, racism, dog fighting; and likewise more triumphant themes, too, such as family bonds, love, ingenuity, loyalty, and the influence of mythic stories and archetypes in our contemporary life.

 

I use Salvage the Bones to teach more about the broader, sociological discussion of income disparity in the United States and the powerful effects of systemic inequality in the lives of individual families.  Sometimes having conversations like these can all too quickly reduce real people to abstract statistics, and this is why I like to use a novel like Salvage the Bones to ground these conversations.  Ward’s characters are complex and fully human, and our conversations in class have to recognize their full humanity—their humor, love, strength, and fallibility—and they serve to remind us that the facts and figures we study in the broader conversations also reflect the lived experience of real people in our society. 

 
Because our school is also a highly privileged institution in New York City, we begin our study of the gulf coast, Katrina, and the novel with a critical examination of what it means to be an outsider looking into another community.  And before we get to the novel, we study Hurricane Katrina through news stories, personal essays, and the excellent movie, Trouble the Water.  None of my students experienced Hurricane Katrina—we all experienced Hurricane Sandy, however, and we use that personal experience to discuss to what degree we can sympathize or empathize with the characters in the novel—and the real people in communities affected by Katrina.

As Ron Charles remarked in his review of the book in the Washington Post, “Salvage the Bones has the aura of a classic about it.”  It does.  It has the scope and vision of “the great American novel” as it provides a rich foundation with which to discuss the important and complex socio-political issues of our day, and the important and complex emotional-psychological issues that teens face as they try to understand their place in the world and who they want to become tomorrow.  This is why I read, teach and write literature—I want to create a safe space in which young people and adults can discuss difficult questions.  Isn’t that why we turn to fiction in the first place?  It provides us an opportunity to look beyond ourselves, to engage in meaningful conversations about questions that are the hardest to discuss, but also the most important.
 

 
About Brendan Kiely:

Brendan Kiely is the author of the recently published novel, The Gospel of Winter. TGoW is “a fearless debut novel about the restorative power of truth and love after the trauma of abuse.” (Goodreads Page).  He teaches literature and writing at an independent high school in New York City. 

The Gospel of Winter has received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly – and me.  Publishes January 21, 2014 from Margaret K. McElderry Books.  ISBN:  9781442484894.