Over the past few weeks I’ve read two books featuring young women in rough circumstances, and I keep weighing them against each other. It’s probably not fair to either book, but given the themes it’s hard not to compare them.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and deservedly so. It’s brilliant. It’s a story about a 14-year-old African-American girl in Bois Sauvage, MS, growing up too fast as sexuality, pregnancy, poverty, dog-fighting, her father’s descent into alcoholism, and hurricane Katrina all bear down on her.
Katherine Faw Morris’ Young God is out just this spring. It’s gripping, the tale of a 13-year-old white girl in rural North Carolina, trying to regain some semblance of a normal life in the wake of her mother’s sudden death. Only “normal” means running away from a group home, tracking down her cokehead father, and trying to restart the family business of running a hillbilly drug empire.
Both books are full of people facing down terrible options and choosing one that seems OK at the time. Both books highlight uncomfortable sex and self-destruction and bullshit fights and government agencies that are useless at best.
But Salvage the Bones seems written with genuine affection for the place and the people it contains. By comparison, Young God seems lurid and exploitative.
As I said, it’s not fair to compare them this way. That’s not what they were written for, and Young God is by no means a bad novel. But stacked together on the shelf, I’d recommend Salvage the Bones every time. It’s just a beautiful piece of work and deserves every bit of the praise that it gets.