THE SALT EATERS by Toni Cade Bambara

Simmons-Salt-EatersThis was written in 1980, in a stylized combination of fantasy, stream of consciousness, reminiscences, and goodness only knows what else.

It has been called wonderful by some, impenetrable by other, political by yet others.  I’ll go with that.   But let me warn you right off, if you come for the story line,  there is a whole lot of thicket to wade through to keep it in sight. It goes from present, to past, to total fantasy.  And you know me, I am all about the story.  I hate having to keep chasing it down.

Basically, it is about a community of healers in some little unnamed town in the south, in Georgia, and a community of civil rights activists.  Velma Henry has tried to commit suicide, and it seems not for the first time.  She has been a civil rights activist and a worker for women’s rights, and it has all been overwhelming.  Minnie Ransom is a powerful healer with spiritual powers, and a spirit muse/mentor, Old Wife, with whom she has pages long philosophical conversations.

The book opens in the Southwest Community Infirmary with Velma seated on a stool wearing only a hospital gown, and Minnie across from her trying to determine whether Velma is in a place in her head that is ready to be healed.  From there we get Velma’s thoughts and reminiscences, back to the present with the healer, then into the healer’s mind, then back to present, then a circle of 12 people arrive to form a healing circle, but one of them leaves, a woman important in Velma’s life, and then we get all the back story to this woman through her thoughts, then back to present, then Velma again, with memories of her husband from whom she is now estranged, and from that we get into the husband’s head, and his perspective on Velma, then back to present, then pages of the healer chatting with Old Wife.

I so wanted to love this book, a recommendation from somewhere. The book received the American Book Award. It is considered experimental writing, and is poetic and meditative in tone and style.  No one character is truly the protagonist here, as the focus gradually builds to center on the community of activists and healers, all people spiritually struggling and looking for grounding.

So I didn’t love this book.  It is a difficult book to read, to follow.  There is not so much a plot as an arc.  I prefer my stories a smidge more linear because I am old and don’t want to work all that hard on a story that focuses on the political and civil rights struggles of the 60s, and 70s.  It is heavily political, and maybe it is the surreal political season we are living through right now, but I want to read something less political so I can forget just how horrible, paranoid, racist, bigoted, homophobic, and xenophobic a great deal of the American citizenry can be.   Yes, I accept it.  I am a pitiful excuse for a human being.

But the thing is, Gentle Readers,  that the book reflects Real Life so much more than the more traditional method of story telling.  It goes hither and thither, from present to the past, from fractured memory to actual events.  Our lives don’t really move along in a linear fashion. Our days are full of remembering the past,  trying to predict the future, trying to organize the day we are in.  Maybe that is why this book was a challenge.  Know what I mean?



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