The 2011 National Book Award winner, Ward’s second novel, is a fabulous study of family, race, and poverty, set in the steamy mostly-black bayou town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, in the days leading up to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Though it’s only her second book, it has the feel of a canonical book, a quintessential piece of American literary history.
And though much of what you read about the book will talk about the role of Katrina, I found the novel to be much less about Katrina and her effects than about the everyday storms of being black and poor in rural Mississippi.
I couldn’t help but compare Esch, the novel’s fifteen-year-old protragonist, to Harriet in Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (2002). Both are young girls living in Mississippi, but Esch, of course, is black, while Harriet is white. And this makes all the difference in the world. Not to discredit Tartt’s novel, but Harriet’s conflicts seem to pale in comparison to the troubles faced by the simultaneously sweet and sultry Esch.
The fierce love between the members of the Batiste family, and between Skeetah, Esch’s older brother, and his pitbull and her puppies, is juxtaposed throughout the novel with the violence of Bois Sauvage, of the dogfights, and of Katrina herself. And it’s just magical and dark and astoundingly remarkable literature.