Salvage the Bones takes place during the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Esch lives in the small Louisiana town of Bois Sauvage with her alcoholic father and three brothers. The oldest dreams of being a basketball star, the youngest is just six years old, and his birth brought about the death of their mother. Esch is the only girl surrounded by men-her father, her brothers, and their friends. She learned early that sex was something she could give away for some time and attention from the other boys in their group, and now she is 14 and pregnant. As the storm grows in the Gulf, so too do the tensions in the family.
Esch is the main character and narrator, and Ward uses her to show the desperation in which she and her family live. No one in the family has regular work, though they all have schemes for how they can improve their future. Her oldest brother has his sights set on a basketball scholarship, with scouts coming to visit during the summer league. Her closest brother, Skeet, breeds his fighting dog and plans to sell the puppies. Esch herself has no real idea what her life can be, but she would just be happy if Manny, the father of her unborn child, would ditch his pretty girlfriend and choose her. Their father is mostly absent, only paying attention to the children when he wants them to help him get ready for the storm that none of them actually think is coming. Many of the choices that the family makes are questionable, but the reader can't help but root for them. Underneath all of the poverty and desperation, there is a lot of love between Esch and her brothers. They have taken care of each other for so long, and in such dire circumstances, that they function as parts of one machine.
Ultimately, nothing works out the way that anyone hopes. Esch is a big fan of Greek mythology, and the story of her family follows the basic rules of a Greek tragedy. It does seem as though the fates are against them, regardless of what they do or think will happen. When the storm finally breaks, the family faces the loss of everything they have, except each other. In the end, it is their love for each other, and their perseverance that proves that the human spirit can be amazingly resilient.