Esch, the narrator of this novel by Jesmyn Ward, is 15 years old and pregnant. She and her brothers more or less take care of each other, since their mother is dead and their father spends a lot of his time drinking. At the time of the novel, though, he’s attentive enough to start trying to seal up their little Mississippi home to protect against the coming storm that will turn out to be Hurricane Katrina. The kids help out, but they’re mostly focused on their own concerns, especially eldest brother Skeetah’s pit bull, China, and her newborn pups.
This book is one of contrasts. There’s the gentleness with which Skeetah treats China, and the brutal fighting he’s trained her for. There’s the white family nearby, who have all the resources they need and the ability to leave them behind, battened down tight and protected from thieves, and the many Black families who have no choice but to stay. There’s the father who won’t provide and the brother who promises to pay for basketball camp. There’s the beautiful but neglectful boy and the more attentive but less attractive one. And, most striking of all, there’s Esch’s hardscrabble life and her imaginings of herself as a modern-day Medea, ready to assert her power.
It’s also a book of powerful scenes, of pups being born and dogs tearing each other apart (another contrast), of tears that won’t stop in a school bathroom stall, of a dog being swept away in the water.
I admired the craft in this book, but I ended up sort of wondering about centering the story on Hurricane Katrina, whether it was too much of a distraction. It provided a lot of drama, but most of the book is set in the days before Katrina, and I kept worrying too much about what would happen to everyone in the family to really take in what was actually happen. But maybe that too is a contrast we’re meant to pay attention too, the contrast between all the ways Esch are trying to just manage when some force outside them can come and tear it all apart. And it doesn’t feel like a “Katrina” novel so much as a novel about people who happen to live through Katrina.
I’m also grappling with the dog-fighting, and grappling with my own grappling. I read about human cruelty all the time, yet animal cruelty hits harder sometimes. Perhaps because it’s rarer in fiction. Perhaps because animals are so fully outside the systems that hurt them. Or maybe I just like animals more than people. Here, I was unsettled at how tender the narrative is toward Skeetah, a move that I respect in that I don’t want novelists to feel obligated to moralize overtly about every wrong the characters commit. And the depiction of the dogfight is enough to demonstrate the cruelty of the act. Perhaps, too, Skeetah’s sweetness toward his dog despite his putting her into fights is meant to echo their father’s neglect of the children he loves. Or even the way the whole sorry system forces those within it to fight for every scrap, while also professing to show care. Another contrast.
In the end, I’m not sure how much I liked this. I liked a lot about it, but sometimes it leaned too hard into its own literariness. It seemed very written to me, to the point that I never got lost in it. I think, though, that this is a very individual thing, and other readers are likely to find the prose immersive and mesmerizing. I felt similary about Ward’s subsequent novel, Sing Unburied Sing, so there may just be a reader/writer mismatch here.