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Throughout Savage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward places considerable emphasis on growth and change within Esch — whether the multiple descriptions of Esch’s pregnant belly, or how she sees herself as a fighter who breaks the stereotypical male-female dynamic by becoming the stronger, more mature party in her affair with Manny. This focus is interesting because her growth is in direct relation to China in almost all cases. Particularly in the case of Esch’s journey into womanhood. In this essay, I will show that China’s role in the novel is to be a direct guiding presence to Esch. Through many paradoxes within China’s life, Esch is able to relate and learn.
We first see evidence of China having a direct impact in Esch’s life in the very first page of the novel. As China is in labor to deliver her puppies, Esch immediately correlates this to the death of her mother. Esch’s mother birthed all four of her children in their Mississippi house, like China and Esch, her mother is described as a fighter. Her mother was determined not to go to the hospital even as she hemorrhaged blood after Junior’s birth, and as China is giving birth in the very same “pit” Esch relate herself to China while relating China to her mother. Esch tells the reader how when she was child, her father often compared her to her mother, describing them both as “fighters” (Ward, 2) and later Esch referred to China as a fighter while the she endured childbirth. Being the only other female around after her mothers passing it is easy for Esch to allow China to fulfill a motherly role in her life emotionally. As if fighting is an inherited trait, Esch makes it seem like fighting runs in the family and if her mom has it, as well as China, Esch sees them as one of the same.
This notion is exemplified when Esch personifies China during her birth. Esch takes note of how Skeetah gives China feminine traits, especially when it comes to needing help. While preparing for Juniors birth Esch recalls how she and her father were “no help, although Daddy said Mama told him she’s didn’t need any help”(Ward, 1-2) this is exactly like Skeetah coaching China through delivery, as a husband would, not only focusing on her “like a man focuses on a woman when he feels that she is his, which China is” (Ward, 3), but also like Skeetah telling Esch that China “don’t need no help pushing”.(Ward, 4) In this way, China becomes equivalent to Esch’s mother, and Esch relates directly to her mother spirit through China. This is when Esch first begins to realize she can learn, compare, or take actions similar to China as she would when following her own mother’s footsteps.
In chapter two, we see an extended description of China guiding Esch to find the delights of pregnancy. The chapter beginnings with Esch, being led into a shed that holds China and her puppies, they are nursing from her, and Skeetah refers to them as miracles. This is one of the joys that come with motherhood, and almost immediately followed by Esch’s memory of looking for eggs with her mother. This is one of the ways Ward correlates Chinas actions to Esch’s mother so that Esch can uncover something new about herself. Esch searching for hen eggs in her yard becomes a symbol of the confusion, she feels about her body and her, not known to her yet, unborn child. By allowing Esch to see China’s “miracles” (Ward, 21) right before the memory of her mother helping her find eggs, Ward hints that since she no longer has her mother, and is longing for her mother, China is something to fulfill this absence. By the end of the chapter Esch learns of her pregnancy and instead of thinking of ways to fix the problem or hid it, Esch embraces the fact that for the first time that there is something or someone inside her. With China just having children of her own, and because she sees parts of her mother in China, Esch uses China as a guide in her own exploration into motherhood.
Another direct correlation where China guides Esch through a point in her life is in regard to sickness and health. In chapter three Esch says she is “Sick from the moment I open my eyes,”(Ward, 37), this is right before the reader learns that China is refusing to allow her puppies to nurse, because she is sick. Esch is the one to point the idea that China doesn’t want her babies to catch the virus, and this is one of many verifications that Esch is making feminine connections with China. Esch is learning that being a mother is going to be hard and that she must do things that may hurt her but are for her children. Esch not only had to struggle to keep her food down, but must endure throwing up over to smells that she is used to. China also shows her solidarity within this chapter by snarling at Skeetah. Skeetah tried to make her puppies nurse, which would end with their deaths. China shows that a mother must be a mother no matter the circumstance. This is enforced when Esch is rejected by Manny at the pond. Esch envisions that she is a fetus in a womb, trying to sink deeper away. This can be compared to China’s exterior after rejecting her puppy from feeding. Esch described her as “eyelids droopy, and suddenly she looks tired. She is a weary goddess”(Ward, 40). After the pond scene Esch realizes she may have to be a single mother, also like China, and it takes a toll on her. Both China and Esch seem to want to escape and take a break from the tolls of motherhood. But, like China who puts on a brave face and allows the rest of her puppies to “pull on her swollen breast”(Ward, 40) Esch returns to the surface knowing she can’t hide and must be a mother no matter her situation.
More evidence where China has a direct impact on Esch’s life is in regard to rebelling against motherhood. In chapter five when Esch recalls hearing girls at her school list ways to force a miscarriage, and considered the “throwing yourself on something hard and metallic.”(Ward 102) option. Esch thinks she may be able to find something to jump on, like the dump truck hood or a washing machine rotting in the yard.(Ward, 102) Following these thoughts the next chapter brings the death of a puppy. China lashes out at one of her puppies and bites at its neck until the puppy is mangled. This scene is parallel to the mutilation of Esch’s father’s fingers, and as Ward describes the blood on the “pulpy puppy in China’s mouth” (Ward, 129) and “the meat of his fingers” being “red and wet as China’s lips” (Ward, 130) the scene is to be symbolism for if we’re to decide to throw herself against the truck. But, as Esch notes hearing Skeetah begins wailing, “Why did you?” the symbolism is confirmed. Once again looking to China for guidance, Esch personifies China again as she is “bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea,”( Ward, 130) and asks, “Is this what motherhood is?” (Ward, 130). This is an affirmation that Esch wants to not only learn from China, but also that China is willing to teach her. China showed Esch what the death of an innocent looks like and from the bloody death of her child she taught Esch and that being a mom is hard but you just can’t give up or stop trying. This is not only shown by China, killing her puppy, but by her brother mutilated her father, proving that a child can hurt you just as much.
China impacts Esch again, and perhaps the biggest impact on Esch, appears in chapter eight, where China fights her puppies father and, what might be considered as a lover, Kilo. Through this not only does Esch imagine China is talking to her but, it is also a lead up to more important events in chapter 10. Through this dog fight China leads Esch to realize that she doesn’t need Manny to love her, like her, or be in her life. Constantly throughout the novel Esch compare and relates her life to China, and when Esch notices Manny telling Rico, “She ain’t shit, ain’t got no heart” about China (Ward, 173), Esch feels as if he’s saying it about her. It is after this that China viciously rips out a part of Kilos neck proving to Esch that although they the father of their children and lovers, ultimately, they do not matter. Furthermore, not only as women they strong, but that as mothers can rise above anything, even those who took a part in making the child. This dogfight served as a proxy for Esch’s relationship with Manny, and China has now allowed Esch to realize that she doesn’t need nor want Manny anymore. In chapter ten when Esch says she is “on him like China,” (Ward, 203) it is the first time, Esch sees the strength that her father, China, and her mother say in her. Esch gets into a fight with Manny, and in full force rakes her fingernails into Manny’s face and drawing blood, much like China in regard to Kilo, Esch attack Manny with no regret. Esch has a full understanding about the power she has as a woman, and by stating that “tomorrow…everything will be washed clean” (Ward, 205), she acknowledges that she will follow Chinas lead and go through childbirth without the father, because she doesn’t need him. Through physical violence Esch relates to China once again, and she learns that it is okay to be a “raging woman” if after you move on and learn your past mistakes. It took her watching China rip her lover’s throat out and walk away to realize that she had emotions of jealously, anger, and envy because she couldn’t have Manny and that it only hurt her more. Ragging women who stay mad can’t forget their pain and end up hurting themselves. Esch wants to be a strong woman, like China, so she decides to better herself and move on from Manny.
Following Esch’s final revelation hurricane Katrina comes, and although a violent storm, it washed away a previous Esch along with China. Ward specifically killed off China much like Esch’s mother, unexpectedly. This was needed because it allowed Esch to realize that she doesn’t need to face things alone, but if she did she has the strength within her. When Esch’s mother died, she sought guidance through her dog because she believed she couldn’t face the world without some sort of woman to look up to. China was beloved, but Esch needed to recognize the mother with herself, and understand that instead of searching for someone to be her mother figure, she needed to learn to be one for her baby. With all this in mind, the final way Esch can relate to China is by realizing that her family will always be there for her. China had Skeetah helping her and loving her throughout the whole novel, much like Esch has her family that were looking out for her whether she noticed or not. With all that has been discussed in this essay, one can see how Esch has finally grown and matured in the way that she needed. She now embraces the burgeoning of motherhood, she has defeated and gotten over Manny, and she has opened her eyes, much like a newborn baby, and realized she is not alone in her journey to motherhood. Chinas guiding presence is confirmed to the reader with the final image of the book has Esch imagining China’s return and thinking, “She will bark and call me sister . . . she will know that I am a mother.” (Ward, 259). This proves that Esch is truly ready to be a mother, and she acknowledges China as the same.
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