She’s in love with Manny who doesn’t care. Her oldest brother, Randall, wants to make it to basketball camp, so he can maybe, maybe go to college. Skeetah, the next oldest, has a pregnant pit bull whom he tends to like a wife. Junior is eight years younger than her and just wants to play with the puppies and roll in the dirt. Her alcoholic daddy is convinced a big hurricane is coming, but no one believes him. It’s late summer, and she’s reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for 11th grade English. They all live in Bois Sauvage, near the Mississippi gulf coast. It is 2005.
Jesmyn Ward’s novel takes place in the 12 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, but that didn’t really register when I started reading it. In fact, a lovely book-recommending friend said to read it because it had dogs, sex, and survival. Those three things sold me. A chapter in, I was head over heels for the language and for Esch.
The novel opens with China, the pitbull: “China is fighting, like she was born to do.” She bears five puppies, which Skeetah plans to sell to make the family some money. There is hope the money can help with Randall’s basketball fees. There is hope that the money will get them something other than “top ramen” to eat. All of the men around Esch are caught up while she reads about Medea, compares herself to the women in myths. She searches for yard eggs to help feed everyone and helps Skeetah scheme to keep the puppies alive. She also realizes she is pregnant with Manny’s child.
Right in the middle of the savage woods, their house is in a clearing that they call the Pit. The once clay-rich soil coats everyone who enters with an orange-pink dust. Esch describes her world in precise and exacting detail:
“I dumped the glass into the ditch, where it sparkled on top of the black remains like stars. The water in the pit was low; we hadn’t had a good rain in weeks. The shower we needed was out in the Gulf, held like a tired, hungry child by the storm forming there. When there’s good rain in the summer, the pit fills to the brim and we swim in it. The water, which was normally pink, had turned a thick, brownish red. The color of a scab. I turned around to leave and saw gold. Manny.”
Her narration is at once epic and personal. The Pit seems the place of myths, situated in the deep South that we know exists, but is nonetheless foreign and somewhat otherworldly. They live in close proximity to the elements. She recounts its history as far back as she knows, interspersed with memories of her mother and of all those men around her. At the same time, we become closely acquainted with the primal, with bodies. Manny might be gold, but she is “dark skin, Mama’s slim, short frame with all the curves folded in.” Her pregnancy is a full body experience, and we feel her sweat, her constantly full bladder, her daily vomit.
Esch tells us, “the only thing that’s ever been easy for me to do… was sex when I started having it. I was twelve.” Esch seems to define herself by the men around her, but it is only through her that we see them. When all the boys and men meet in the pit to fight their dogs, she asks “Did Medea bless the heroes before they set out on their journey? Did she stand on the deck of that ship like I stand in this clearing, womanly ripe, and weave spells for rain to cloak their departure, to cloak her betrayal? Had Jason told her he loved her? Manny holds Kilo’s leash and stares at China. Skeetah and China do not move.” Esch isn’t Medea, though. Though she’s in the role of the forsaken woman, she has all of the other men in her life to be her child’s father. Despite all that is taken away, she chooses motherhood.
Read this book because it is epic. Read this book for the close, poetic examination of the body. Read this book because when the storm finally hits, the flood evokes the ghost of Zora Neale Hurston. Read this book for the dogs. If nothing else, read this book for the story of survival, of a family, and of the natural forces they face.
Total Friends of Atticus Pages: 38,627