116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Living Waters: Representing Dynamic Climates in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones

Ned Schaumberg, University of Texas at Arlington

This paper examines Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones to highlight the ways Mississippi Gulf Coast residents are exposed to, and learn from, the dynamic waters surrounding them. The novel uses descriptions of water to complicate understandings of Hurricane Katrina as an “unnatural disaster” without ignoring legacies of racial and environmental injustice that shape life in the region.


In discussing the setting for her 2011 novel Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward explains the need to consider experiences of Hurricane Katrina from outside New Orleans, pointing out that “people weren’t really paying attention to what had happened along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where a different kind of Katrina, a different kind of catastrophe related to Katrina, had occurred. Whereas what happened in New Orleans was much more the result of a man-made disaster, in Mississippi it really was the hurricane itself that had devastated so much. Yet even though the catastrophes differed, the conversations that were going on about both disasters really ignored people, I felt. There was no humanity in the coverage” (qtd. in Hartnell 215). This statement showcases the struggle to connect individual and systemic conceptions of environmental disruption: even as Ward complicates discussions of Hurricane Katrina as an anthropogenic disaster, she reasserts the importance of anthropogenic experiences and perceptions of “natural” climatic events. The implication here is that covering events with “humanity” would attend to complex individual lives and communities without instrumentalizing them to showcase institutional failures or anthropogenic climate change.

Given Ward’s hope that Salvage the Bones is both about “the hurricane itself” and about the “humanity” of those who experience it, I argue that reading for “the hurricane itself” means reading for the climatic history of gulf storms and the cultures exposed to them, revealing the ways other-than-human and anthropogenic agencies shape each other as they shape and define the “humanity” of individuals and communities. Salvage the Bones showcases the role of entangled local and systemic environmental relationships in the ongoing legacies of slavery and segregation experienced by African-Americans, exploring the communities and knowledges emerging from those legacies, especially when combined with the environmental potential for natural disasters and the way that potential shapes life along the Mississippi gulf coast. The novel also figures the persistent “wetness” of life in the bayou as both the impetus for, and essential to, an environmentally situated conception of individual and community identity that complicates efforts to craft narratives of political responsibility, blame, and community as they relate to Hurricane Katrina.

The novel presents the storm as a single manifestation of climatic tendencies while entangling those tendencies with the lives and experiences of marginalized communities of the gulf coast and their ability to discover and pass on the embodied and cultural knowledge of surrounding waters. This knowledge is central to personal and community identity, even as it is learned unwillingly, and at great cost. By refusing to separate the bodily, cultural, and climatic registers of water over time, Salvage the Bones situates Katrina into an extended climatic history without ignoring the role anthropogenic systems in the lives of gulf coast residents, and foregrounds the ongoing role literature and its formal analysis should play in the consideration of complex, multi-faceted environmental issues.