There are movies or shows we see and museums we go to and books we read, not because we feel like they will be entertaining but because we just feel like it’s something we need to do for our own understanding and human growth. Like taking a bitter pill that we know will make us better, from time to time it’s important to take in something like Schindler’s List or the book I just finished, Salvage The Bones, by Jesmyn Ward.

To be completely honest, I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up. I say picked up because I didn’t even buy it. It was part of a stack of giveaways at an AP conference. It had a big sticker on the front saying that it was a National Book Award winner, so I thought it must be something worth reading. That was about three years ago and I just got down to it in my to-be-read pile. If I had read the blurb on the back instead of just going by the seal, I probably wouldn’t have chosen it, but I’m certainly glad I did.

The book, narrated by an intelligent, deep-thinking teenaged girl named Esch, takes place on a poverty-stricken farm in Mississippi over the twelve days leading up to, during, and immediately following Hurricane Katrina. We find early on that Esch is pregnant. She knows who the father is, but she can’t bring herself to even tell him about the baby, let alone about his responsibility. At the same time, Esch’s brother Randall is trying to win a scholarship to a basketball camp in the hopes of getting the attention of a college scout so that he can go to school and get away from his destitute life. Another brother, nicknamed Skeetah, is worrying over his prize Pitbull, named China because of her unique coloring, who is giving birth as the book opens.

Something that made the book hard to read was the fact that parts of it described the dog fighting that appeared to be so prevalent among the young men. It seemed to simply be an everyday part of life for them. The scene in which Skeetah, against the pleading of his family, takes China to fight the father of her puppies made me physically ill. But I have to admit that it made me view dog fighting slightly differently. Far from changing my mind—dog-fighting is despicable, through and through—I still saw the human element of it. Skeetah loved his dog almost more than life itself and China reciprocated. When she fought, the narrator makes it clear that she was doing it for her human. And, unlike professional dog fighting, these dogs only fought until one submitted and both animals almost always walked away to fight again, bloodied but not dead. Again, that doesn’t make it okay.

An element that makes this book so fascinating is that, other than the father, the entire family acts as if the storm isn’t even coming right up until the outer reaches actually hit. So the first two-thirds of the book isn’t about the storm at all. And that’s the point. This book perfectly captures what I imagine it was like for the folks who got the brunt of the destruction. Up until Katrina actually swept through, wiping clean entire towns, everyone was pretty much going on like nothing big was about to happen. And then, after the storm was gone, the survivors looked around at the alien, barren landscape and wondered where their world had gone because this place was no longer the home in which they’d grown up.

Again, this was a hard book to read in terms of the subject matter, but it was so beautifully written that I found myself going back to re-read entire passages just to make sure I’d taken it all in. Ward’s use of metaphor is so lyrical that I sometimes forgot just how desperate the family’s situation was, even before Katrina wiped out their farm. And this book is also worth reading because it puts a face, a sympathetic human face, on all of those poor folks who were caught in the eye of that storm with no way to escape even if they had wanted to and nowhere to go if they could.

You really need to read this book.