“Plenty Daddies”: Parenting in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones

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In a novel where the looming devastation of Hurricane Katrina serves as only a backdrop to the story, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones addresses a bevy of congealing themes while simultaneously targeting specific audiences.  Though the central teenage character’s pregnancy serves as the main arc of the entire plot, the most significant character in the novel has been dead for a number of years.  Salvage the Bones addresses the impact of the loss of a mother, which can be analyzed through two distinct situations: the fallout at the basketball tryout and Esch’s own resolution of what is best for her baby.  This void reemphasizes the cornerstone of Hortense Spillers’ conclusion in “Mama’s Baby; Papa’s Maybe”–that Black women are far more responsible for the trajectory of American civilization than that for which they are credited.  

Randall, the eldest Batiste child, has developed his skills in basketball over the years and is on the brink of becoming eligible to attend a lucrative basketball camp.  This is symbolic of his potential to contribute to the family in the way a traditional parent might. Without a mother around to complement the care their father has provided, Randall, Skeetah, and Esch have each played a maternal role for Junior, the youngest, since his birth.  During one of the most chaotic scenes of the entire novel, however, Randall’s dreams are immediately shredded due to an outburst between Skeetah and a rival dog owner named Rico. These chief dog owners have clearly different opinions of who should retain any of the litter and when any pups can be dispersed.  While Skeetah appears to have a deeper understanding of the developmental phases of newborn puppies, he also fabricates information about the pups and omits the pup he wants the most when he’s itemizing the living ones for Rico.  Though this may appear to be a selfish act, Ward is characterizing Skeetah as the best possible parent for these pups.

Skeetah’s pride and immaturity–traits that perhaps a mother would have monitored and corrected throughout adolescence–led to the impromptu fistfight which, in turn, resulted in Randall’s dismissal from the tryout.  Ward indirectly suggests here that, had his mother been one of the parents who was in attendance that afternoon, perhaps this spout between Skeetah and Rico would have either been stifled. Though their mother’s existence is only mentioned through Esch’s memories, any reader can conclude that she would not have tolerated such behavior in general–and certainly not on a crucial day as this was.

Additionally, the fact that the narrator’s mother passed after giving birth to Junior is an obvious parallel to Esch’s own insecurities about the fate of the baby she learns she will be having early in the book. As the only remaining female on ‘The Pit’, Esch has taken on more responsibilities, notably of feeding and caring for the only younger brother she has. Interestingly, Ward does not portray her promiscuity in an overtly critical manner, a choice that progressively diminishes the long-standing stigma of young women engaging in sexual activity prior to being betrothed.  Throughout the novel, Esch is weighing the potential outcomes of revealing her pregnancy to her family and the baby’s father. While Ward portrays Manny as someone who has sex appeal, she also uses him to exemplify the predatory sex-driven male whose selfish desires will always outweigh the needs of others. When juxtaposed beside much more honorary men in her life like Big Henry, Esch does not settle, predicting that including Manny in her child’s life will only limit that child’s development. Specifically, the culminating moment occurs when Big Henry asks Esch for the father’s identity but is told “[i]t don’t have a daddy” (254). Big Henry lives up to his moniker by expressing to the frightened young mother-to-be “This baby got plenty of daddies” (255).  Ward shows here that a love is what raises children, not necessarily humans. This progressive notion of a woman and her child being better off without a biological parent as a parental figure has roots in all feminism–especially Black feminism.

These two scenes–Randall’s failed attempt to earn a basketball camp scholarship and Esch’s final decision to keep the baby and not include Manny as the part of the baby’s life–parallel the constant theme of the role a parent that echo the tenets of recent Black literary movements and positions.

 

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Hurston’s Janie: Changing the Narrative of Black Female Protagonists

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In a novel replete with striking imagery, revealing dialect, and weighty themes, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God features an unprecedented protagonist whose integrity and will eventually carried her through three marriages and various instances of verbal- and mental abuse.  Though each husband has a distinct function in her life and in the novel, the manner in which each marriage concludes exhibits a slightly different facet of the main character, which escalates how female lead characters continue to abandon the long-standing gender roles and social expectations of black women, especially those in the American South.  

By characterizing a woman whose insistence of being respected by her husband leads her to shake free of her first marriage, Hurston introduces a character whose self-respect outweighs the apparent social norms of her time.  Logan Killicks was far from romantic. Their marriage was nothing short of an arrangement where Janie served far more as an employee than as an equal or a lover. Thus, as Janie is offering this stage of her life to Phoeby, the scant details focus solely on Killicks’ comparison of Janie’s apparent laziness to his “fust wife” who “never bothered [him] ‘bout choppin no wood nohow” as well as how Janie “done been spoilt rotten” (26).   In rapid-fire narrative style, Janie meets Joe Starks and shares their flirtatious tryst with Phoeby. During Killicks’ final scene, Killicks is described as overly tired–something many men in this book have in common–but Janie pushes forward with the notion of leaving him for someone else. He downplays her idea as a waste of time because “‘[t]’ain’t too many mens would trust yuh, knowin’ yo’ folks lak dey do” (30). Arguably, at that precise moment in her first marriage, Janie could envision her future with Killicks and more than likely resolved to leave him at the earliest opportunity and accept Joe Sparks’ offer.  This clearly demonstrates how Hurston intentionally clashed Janie’s self-respect with the complacency of black characters presented before her. T

Janie’s relationship with Sparks displays a new set of roles and opportunities for her.  As the wife of someone whose initiative and ability to build a black community is unparalleled by any other resident, Janie’s social status escalates, even though Joe never affords her the opportunity to speak publicly.  However, to say Sparks simply duped her into this marriage to legitimize his social status in a town full of strangers might overstep the truth. Both men so far had previously cooed rhymes to her, a gesture that Janie values and clearly wished had continued.  Like Killicks, any romantic feelings Joe held toward Janie are quickly suffocated by his selfish desire for power and raising the town’s level of respect for him.

Throughout the twenty years they were together, Janie rarely challenged Joe and settled into her slim pocket of the store and home while her husband enjoyed a career of being touted as a great leader.  When she did publicly confront his misogyny and attack his manhood, he shunned her by sleeping in a different room. Hurston describes this short phase of their relationship as the “sleep of swords” and directly challenges the hypocrisy of Joe’s insults: “Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look so small when he did it to her all the time?” (81).  Here, Hurston launches from her predecessors’ descriptions of this imbalance and bullhorns to the reader that this uneven trajectory simply cannot continue as women struggle to achieve equality.

What is vital to the closing of this chapter of her life was how Janie maintained respect for the man who used her throughout her early adulthood.  Her loyalty toward Joe up to the bitter end of his life exhibits how Hurston sees women as respectful and selfless. Upon meeting Tea Cake, however, Janie is challenged by the townspeople because starting a new relationship after the passing of a husband is, to them, a clear sign of disrespect.  Janie refuses to fall into that social trap, however. By exhibiting a believable, multi-faceted woman in this novel, Hurston dispels the limited roles for black women and clearly instructs them to abandon these social norms and live the life they want.

Tea Cake’s selflessness is apparent by putting himself between the dog and Janie.  Later, she demonstrates reserve and respect toward her dying husband and even regrets how his illness is affecting her ability to tend to him (182).  In the horrifying moment of their final battle, Janie’s self-defense leads her to shoot her husband, which reinforces Hurston’s desire for women to balance altruistic loyalty and self-preservation.  The faceless, nameless jury excuses her from punishment, which also suggests that all of Janie’s actions–from escaping a slave-like marriage to Killicks to killing a diseased Tea Cake–have become universally accepted.  The fact that Janie has outlasted three men, two of whom succumbed to death, further emphasizes that women who strive for self-improvement while shifting out of the pre-established social norms can and will live much longer, fruitful lives.

 

Why I Still teach THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

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Two of my HS junior classes began this J. D. Salinger classic today.  Why?  Well, I have 34 students in the two classes and exactly 34 copies in my classroom.  I’m going with “Fate” as the answer.

Some of you–especially those who have graduated SHS and endured my dry wit for at least a year–have read this book and may even remember a little about it.  I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated, but if you don’t know Holden Caulfield and his December weekend, close this app/laptop right this second, young man/woman!

I wrote recently about my favorite books.  I have long attributed my (perhaps irrational and illogical) choice of becoming a public school English teacher based on one particular novel:  this one. I was not required to read it in high school OR college.  In fact, back in about 1996, a friend and coworker (Bill Something from Iowa) at the now defunct JP ANTHONY BOOKSELLERS in the Meadows shopping center suggested I read it.  Prior to this book, I had thought myself well-versed in modern literature–primarily because I had finished THREE John Grisham novels in my spare time over the previous two years.

I was enamored.  I had already begun taking some writing classes by then, but this novel drilled inspiration into my over-sized head like nothing ever had before.

If it had been an expression back then, I’d have said, “Yeah.  That just happened.  Hashtag Amazeballs!”

My Point–(I’ve learned that not too many people read beyond 300 words, so I’m cutting it close):

Books can inspire us.  Not just the “classics” either.  I love all types of books; I try to give kids a look at books they may never pick up on their own.

I’m inspired a lot by books.  Then again, paintings do a lot for me as well.

Books, paintings, butterflies, songs, children’s laughter…

Inspiration is everywhere, folks.  Sometimes it finds you too.  Here’s hoping this year’s crop of juniors enjoy meeting Holden.