A book about a 14-year-old girl coming of age in the rural South at the time of Hurricane Katrina has captured the attention of students and faculty at Rocky Mountain College.
"Salvage the Bones," the second novel by author Jesmyn Ward, won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. The New York Times called it “a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale.”
Now many people in the RMC community are reading the book as the college’s first Common Read selection. As part of the program, the college is bringing the author to Billings.
During her visit, Ward will deliver a lecture Monday at 6 p.m. in the Fortin Education Center gymnasium. The free talk is open to the public.
Stephen Germic, associate professor of English, proposed the idea for Common Read, something he’s seen done at other colleges.
“There’s so little culture shared in common anymore by really anyone,” he said. “There are too many websites on our computers, too many channels on TV.”
Common Read brings the Rocky community together around a book that touches on topics such as history, philosophy and even climate, Germic said.
“It gives the opportunity to get the whole campus together in conversation,” he said.
The book is required reading for incoming students, a number of classes in other disciplines and faculty across the curriculum, Germic said. An opening lecture introduced the book and its themes, of a poor girl in rural Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina bears down on her, her family and the community.
Students who read the book will have the opportunity to enter an analytical essay into a contest. The movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which touches on some of the same themes as the book, will also be shown on campus.
At the end of the semester, a faculty panel will close out the program.
On Friday, students in Jacqueline Dundas’ first-year writing class discussed the novel.
“You’ve got the story of Esch, who is trying to cope with being a new mother, and they’ve got this hurricane coming in and they’re trying to get ready, and it’s a powerful story,” said Rocky freshman Justan Baker.
“I don’t usually read ever, but it hooks you, there’s so much going on,” added Jordan Porter, also a freshman.
Student Beth Bennett admitted that in some ways, it’s a difficult book.
“I read six pages, put it down, do some other homework, then read some more,” she said. “It’s really tough for me to make it through just because it’s so sad.”
Dundas, who read the book when it was released, said she thought it was perfect for Common Read because it’s a coming-of-age story. And even though Esch lives in a different world from most of Dundas’ students, the girl experiences feelings that they can relate to.
“My students are so struck by those feelings of rejection,” she said. “They all suffered through junior high and high school.”
Asked about reading the book as a shared experience, freshman Treve Icenoggle said he likes it “because if you get confused about a part or you really just want to talk about it with someone, you know everybody’s reading it and it’s not that hard to find someone to talk with about it.”
Germic said the process of picking a book started with an invitation to the entire RMC community to submit suggestions.
Out of 35 books nominated, a committee of faculty, students and staff whittled the number to six.
The committee then read all six entries and voted on their top choice. “Salvage the Bones” was picked.
“It had received considerable national praise and recognition by a writer who is becoming one of the finest writers in America,” Germic said. “And we thought it would speak to the kind of cultural and social issues that engage our students.”