Salvage the Bones is narrated by a teenager named Esch. She is the only girl in an all-male family, since her mother is dead, and her father is an alcoholic. Isolated and alone in this savage town (the town’s name “Bois Sauvage” and the fact that their homestead is called “The Pit” says a lot about how rural this place is), she seeks of a way to escape. She shifts between the present happenings of her life and often alludes to classical Greek literature, particularly the story of Jason and Medea. The allusion becomes allegorical as more and more Greek characters are compared to the people in her life. In this way, she could escape briefly, pretending to be Eurydice or Daphne, her favorite goddesses from the Greek myths. She may be stuck in a predominantly black Mississippi town in the direct path of Hurricane Katrina, but her imagination runs wild. As a narrator, Esch is observant and poetic, often given to reminiscing about her mother who died in childbirth. She notices the inherent violence of this place in brutal details. A lot of the metaphors and similes she makes are often compared to something of the earth, nature, and the human body—meat, sweat, and blood. Most of her problems came to a head when Esch, pregnant and tomboyish as ever, has sex in a toilet stall with her lover. Manny, the father of her growing baby, would not look at her after he found out about her pregnancy. However, Esch’s love of the Greek myths has made her unsurprised at his treatment of her, though it still hurts her deeply. There is a reason why she relates to Medea the most, and it is not only because they both fell in love with a guy who betrayed them.
First, a little background on Medea and Jason. Medea was the strongest sorceress of Colchis, and the daughter of the reigning King Aeetes. Jason was the leader of the Argonauts, who came to the island in hopes of obtaining the Golden Fleece from the King. The King refused to give it to him, but Medea helped him retrieve it with her magic after they got married. While they fled from the island, Jason convinced Medea to cut her brother, who willingly fled with them, into pieces and throw into the sea to delay pursuit from the King. They got away safely and settled down in Corinth, where Medea birthed her two sons. However, Jason cheated on Medea with the daughter of the Corinth King. As revenge, Medea kills the King of Corinth, his daughter, and her two sons. Why Esch feels a strong kinship between her and Medea is that for the man they loved, they were both willing to sacrifice much of themselves. It is not about the betrayal but of all that led up to it. Her feelings toward Manny, her memories of Manny, and her fixation on Manny for the better part of the narrative makes her able to completely understand Medea’s actions and desires. Esch is not exactly Medea's double, but she is a fighter and claims agency in startling ways.
“When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her,” Esch says, “I know her… Even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two” (). She projects her own unrequited love into the Greek myth of Jason and Medea, liking herself to the powerful enchantress and Manny to Jason—the man who swept Medea off her feet. In the beginning, Medea helps articulate Esch’s “youthful love.” Esch is able to read a story for more than its characters’ feelings, but what seems to have struck her first is how Medea’s emotions reflect her own: Medea’s love for Jason resonates with Esch’s feelings for her lover, Manny. Such an emotional identification characterizes Esch’s early readings of several ancient figures so much that she ignores how these stories and myths end—as with most Greek myths, passionate love between lovers are hard to reciprocate and last. Esch refuses to have sex with anyone else after she realized she loved Manny. The first few times she had sex, all she said about it was that “it was easier to… ().” This suggests that she may not want to have sex but does it because she felt pressured to do so. However, towards Manny, her attitude changes and she later started refusing to have sex with anyone other than him because “with Manny, it was different; he was so beautiful, and still he chose me, again and again” (16). This was why Esch was so sure the baby in her stomach belonged to him when she found out (). Every time they had sex, her feelings for him went deeper and deeper. Their sex is framed with reference to mythology: “I was bold as a Greek; I was making him hot with love, and Manny was loving me” (17). At this point, Esch identifies with Medea’s “youthful love” to such a degree that other aspects of Medea’s story and myths seem forgotten, a warning ignored.
After Esch realized she was pregnant with Manny’s child, she keeps wondering if she would be a good mother. She wonders if Manny would accept their child. He did not, violently shoving Esch to the side of the toilet stall when he found out. Luckily, Medea had slowly became the symbol of motherhood and betrayal in Esch’s mind at a young age. When her mother died giving birth to Junior, Esch was surrounded by men. Growing up around them, all she could have turned toward as a mother-figure was Medea from her books, and eventually, China, the bulldog her brother treasures. However, Medea is probably closer to Esch's world than China, where love exacts a broken heart as the price and motherhood is a deadly, bloody business. It might not be love that connects her and Manny, but an obsession with Manny that he does not appreciate. When Manny spurns her, Esch is ready, “In every one of the Greeks’ mythology tales, there is this: a man chasing a woman, or a woman chasing a man. There is never a meeting in the middle. There is only a body in a ditch, and one person walking toward or away from it” (32). Her feelings toward Manny lead her to chase him for more than half the book. Perhaps Esch likens getting Manny as completing a quest in Greek myths. Fulfilling a quest in Greek myths are usually time-consuming and hard because they are always given out by gods, goddesses, and other powerful beings to test the person in question.
Did Esch think Manny’s standoffish nature was to test her love for him? No, Esch knows she is “stuck in the middle” (154), and so she tries to get away from him. “To get away from her, from the smell of Manny still on me a night and morning afterward, I get up” (154). Getting away from Manny is, by extension, trying to get away from Medea. She is scared of becoming exactly like Medea in the end of the Greek myth: a traitor who killed her own brother and two children, and is abandoned by her lover. Now that she cannot willfully ignore the ending of the myth, she hopes that she will be able to avoid the destructive consequences that came with loving Manny. This might apply first of all to Manny: a perfect Jason-figure by extension from Esch’s identification with Medea. Manny, at one point, is described as being like Jason in his emotional cruelty towards her (172). She is abandoned by Manny for another girl, but she did not let go of him without him knowing what she thought of him. “I loved you!” (). We can see how strong Esch is here, finally standing up to the man who tried to throw her away and avoid responsibility. She fixes her bond with her brother, Skeetah, which had been frayed when Esch had stood up for Manny when Skeetah suspected him of lying (). Complicating matters even further, is the answer she gives Skeetah, who inquired after whom she will name her child if it is a boy: “Jason. Jason Aldon Batiste” (248). This shows that while Esch has moved on from Manny, she was determined to remember what he represented to her—a love that did not last but also something that she overcame and persevered through.
Medea represents multiple possibilities for Esch coming of age and becoming a mother. Esch is aware of multiple versions of Medea’s story as represented in Hamilton’s telling: “The author says that there are a couple of different versions of how it happened” (154). The multiple versions will bear on her motherhood. In the context of a deceased mother or otherwise unhelpful mother-figures (China), it is Medea who serves as Esch’s main example of motherhood. Medea is therefore a model for strength. She is not an exact copy of Medea because she refused to get rid of her unborn child, though she thought of it often in the beginning stages. By the end of the narrative, Esch has come to terms with being a mother and that the baby will have “many daddies” (). Esch also comes into her strength as the threat of Katrina loomed and passed, and it is her journey to survive that disaster that gets her there. Perhaps Esch is like Medea—not the murderer but just the magician. Medea was a sorceress, and there is magic in Esch's ability not only to survive her circumstances, but to speak about them with such clarity and depth they are meaningful to all.