I loved Esch's voice. She is a bright and articulate girl stuck in a boy's world and coping the best that she can. The story is amazingly tragic and has the potential to be too overtly "after school special" with the teen pregnancy, alcoholic father, dead mother, extreme poverty, and Katrina to boot, but amazingly Ward pulls it off. She crafts a novel that is compelling, heartbreakingly real, and touching.
There are several important relationships in the book and each one examines a different kind of love. Skeet's love for China is one of the most overt in the book, yet he is the only one paying enough attention to notice that Esch is pregnant and he sacrifices China to the current to save Esch when they swim for high ground during the hurricane. Randall is also a very caring a nurturing guy; he is essentially the father figure for Junior.
Esch clearly describes her intense attraction for and love of Manny, despite his indifference to her. I loved the change in language when Esch was thinking about Manny: he is always beautiful. She knows that he has no deeper feelings for her and that the likelihood of them ending up in a relationship is almost nonexistent, she knows that the pregnancy is not a good thing ("the terrible truth of what I am flares like a dry fall fire in my stomach, eating all the fallen pine needles."), but she still hopes and dreams. I also liked that her description of China changed after she became certain of her own pregnancy: "titties" became "breasts", China was a "weary goddess" and later "China will bark and call me sister. In the star-suffocated sky, there is a great waiting silence. She will know that I am a mother."
Early on, the reader sees a similar unrequited love in Big Henry's feelings for Esch. She does not spurn him the way that Manny has spurned her, but he is the only one of the boys with whom she has not consented to have sex.
I loved the simultaneity between China eating the puppy and Daddy losing his finger; there is so much that is shown in the relationships between these people and the animals as who we love disappoints us and we struggle to establish a new reality or convince them to return to the way they used to be or the way they used to treat us before the disappointment.
There was a timeline issue that bothered me: on the first page, Esch is described as being 8 when her mother died giving birth to Junior, but later when she tells the story of Elaine (the worse hurricane she experienced prior to Katrina) she says she was nine and Mama was large pregnant.
I also did not like that on page 7 she references As I Lay Dying (certainly the topic and location bring Faulkner to mind throughout the novel) and gives Esch the ability to answer the hardest question; it seemed like Ward was inviting the comparison (rather than letting it happen naturally, which it very well might given her great writing). Cheap and fishing for compliments is how it came across (and maybe just because it was so early in the book).
Overall this book is about love (in all it's forms) and the relationships that sustain us through the worse things that life can throw at us. Very good read.