Settings abound! We get to explore lots of different landmarks in America through Sal. As a result, we get a kind of portrait of America (which we explore more fully in the "Themes" section of this learning guide). But we also get a portrait of our narrator through all the things she sees.
On Sal's road trip from Euclid, OH to Lewiston, ID, she and her grandparents stop in a lot of places:
Because Sal's mother is part American Indian (Seneca), Sal explores America through the perspective of American Indian history. Some of what she sees and learns through her road trip opens her eyes and makes her happy. Other things make her sad and disappointed, as she learns about the history of Native American people and how they were robbed of their land by white Americans.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let's zoom in on a few key locations.
Euclid, Ohio is three hundred miles north of Bybanks, Kentucky. It is a boring, boring place compared to Sal's farm in Bybanks, because there's not a lot of nature around:
Tiny squirt trees. Little birdhouses in a row—and one of those birdhouses was ours. No swimming hole, no barn, no cows, no chickens, no pigs. Instead, a little white house with a miniature patch of green grass in front of it. It wasn't enough grass to keep a cow alive for five minutes. (3.6)
Oh my. Sal does have a really amazing sense of humor sometimes. We can totally imagine a cow squeezed into one of these backyards, chomping on some grass. Poor Sal. To go from huge fields and wide open spaces full of trees to a tiny little house with a tiny little backyard must be really, really hard, don't you think?
When Sal sees her actual house in Euclid, it's bad news bears:
We walked through the tiny living room into the miniature kitchen and upstairs into my father's pint-sized bedroom and on into my pocket-sized bedroom and into the wee bathroom. I looked out the upstairs window down into the backyard. Half of the tiny yard was a cement patio and the other half was another patch of grass that our imaginary cow would devour in two bites. There was a tall wooden fence all around the yard, and to the left and right of our yard were other identical fenced plots. (2.8)
Where are the trees, the fields, the plants, and animals that Sal loves so much and that are so important to her? Euclid just can't deliver. There's something about the cement patio in particular and the tall wooden fence that really gets to us. Cement is pretty much the opposite of anything living or growing, and fences box you in.
So then why, oh, why would Dad Hiddle ever make the decision to leave beautiful Bybanks and move to cementy Euclid? Sal tells us in Chapter 18:
"But for now," he said, "we have to leave because your mother is haunting me day and night. She's in the field, the air, the barn, the walls the trees." He said we were making this move to learn about bravery and courage. (18.23)
So that brings us to Bybanks, the place that's so haunted by the memory of Chanhassen that Dad Hiddle has to flee, with an unwilling Sal in tow.
Bybanks is the site of Sal's magical family farm in Kentucky, and as Sal tells us, it "is not much more than a caboodle of houses roosting in a green spot alongside the Ohio River" (1.1). It's a paradise to Sal and her family, full of wildlife, farm animals, and gorgeous, wide open spaces. The natural world thrives in Bybanks in ways that it definitely doesn't in Euclid.
So it's no wonder then, that Sal misses her hometown so much:
I wanted to be back in Bybanks, in the hills and the trees, near the cows and chickens and pigs. I wanted to run down the hill from the barn and through the kitchen door that banged behind me and see my mother and my father sitting at the table peeling apples. (4.2)
There's so much freedom in Bybanks. A person can run all over the place and not have to worry about cars or strangers or any kind of real danger that you might find in a city like Euclid. Everything is alive in Bybanks – from the trees to the farm animals to the apples that her parents peel.
There's also kind of a magic to Bybanks: it seems like a very spiritual place. Consider Sal's descriptions of her singing tree:
Next to my favorite sugar maple tree beside the barn is a tall aspen. When I was younger, I heard the most beautiful birdsong coming from the top of that tree. It was not a call; it was a true birdsong, with trills and warbles. I stood beneath that tree for the longest time, hoping to catch sight of the bird who was singing such a song. I saw no bird – only leaves waving in the breeze. The longer I stared up at the leaves, the more it seemed that it was the tree itself that was singing. (16.10)
What a beautiful description, Sal. Through this moment, we really begin to see just how much Bybanks means to her. It's not just a beautiful place – it is full of wonder and mystery. It's a place where miraculous things like a tree singing can exist.
Sal feels a deep connection to her farm, which really rings true when Sal hears the very same birdsong at the end of her story, when she visits her mother in Lewiston, Idaho:
In the midst of the still morning, with only the river gurgling by, I heard a bird. It was singing a birdsong, a true, sweet birdsong. I looked all around and then up into the willow that leaned toward the river. The birdsong came from the top of the willow and I did not want to look too closely, because I wanted it to be the tree that was singing. (42.23)
For a moment, it's almost as if she's back in Bybanks, and nothing has changed. We really understand, then, how horrible it must be for Sal to have to leave her farm. She tells us:
I refused to move. I would not leave our farm, our maple tree, our swimming hole, our pigs, our chicken our hayloft. I would not leave the place that belonged to me. I would not leave the place to which, I was so convinced, my mother would return. (18.22)
Sal associates her beautiful farm in Bybanks with her mother and with her happy life before her mother lost her baby and grew very sad. For most of the novel, we're pretty sure she'd do just about anything to go back there. Finally, she does.
When Sal, her dad, and Gramps return to Bybanks at the end of the story, the place hasn't changed, but Sal's family definitely has. It seems everyone has gone through a huge journey:
We're back in Bybanks now. My father and I are living on our farm again, and Gramps is living with us. Gram is buried in the Aspen grove where she and Gramps were married. We miss our Gooseberry every single day. (44.1)
So many sad things have happened, but there are also new things to welcome them. Gramps gets a new puppy and names it Huzza Huzza. He gives Sal driving lessons on his old farm, and the two play a game in which they pretend to walk in someone else's moccasins. Though everyone – Sal, Gramps, Dad – has been hurt and has dealt with lots of pain, we get the feeling that they are going to be just fine back in Bybanks.
Madison is one of the early stops on Sal's road trip, and from the looks of it, it's a pretty awesome place:
The city of Madison sprawls between two lakes, Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and dribbling out of these are other piddly lakes. It seemed as if the whole city was on vacation, with people riding around on their bikes and walking along the lakes and feeding the ducks and eating and canoeing and windsurfing. I'd never seen anything like it. […]
There's a part of the city where no cars can go, and thousands of people stroll around eating ice cream. We went into Ella's Kosher Deli and Ice Cream Parlor and ate pastrami sandwiches and kosher dill pickles, followed by raspberry ice cream. After we walked around some more, we were hungry again, and so we had lemon tea and blueberry muffins at the Steep and Brew. (10.11-12)
It's interesting to note Sal's tone here when she describes the "piddly lakes" and the fact that everyone seems to be "on vacation." It's almost as though she doesn't like the hustle and bustle of Madison. Perhaps she really is a country girl at heart and isn't used to being around so many people.
We love how Sal tells us about the food that she eats in Madison – it all sounds delicious. However, again we get the feeling that Sal somehow doesn't feel that all of this "vacationing" is right when she's on a mission to get to her mother. It's almost as though she doesn't feel like she can let herself really relax or have any kind of fun on this road trip.
Oh, and just so you know, Ella's Kosher Deli and Ice Cream Parlor is totally a real place. They serve something called a Hot Fudge Deep Dish Banapple Jubilee. Has anything ever sounded more delicious in your life? The Steep and Brew, too, is a real place in Madison.
Sal has a very interesting conversation with a man in Pipestone, Minnesota when she and her grandparents stop at the monument there for a few hours:
I asked one if he was Native American, but he said, "No, I'm a person." I said, "But are you a Native American person?" He said, "No, I'm an American Indian person." I said, "So am I. In my blood." (12.20)
How do you feel about this interaction? Why does Sal ask this man how he identifies himself? It seems like she is searching for a piece of herself by asking the man these questions. Her mother identified with her own American Indian heritage, and maybe Sal's looking for a way to do that, too.
Have you noticed that Sal is very good at observing other people's homes? Here are a few examples:
Each time I went into that house I noticed new things. It was a scary place. The walls were lined with shelves crammed with old musty books. On the floor were three rugs with dark, swirly patterns of wild beasts in forests. Two chairs were covered in similar ghastly designs. A sofa was draped in a bear skin. (30.23-24)
Perhaps the reason why Sal pays such careful attention to homes is because her own home is broken, and she misses it more than anything. Based on Sal's observations, what do you think she thinks makes a home homey? What makes it uncomfortable?