Through all the intertwined, wacky stories going on in this book, we are constantly able to see Sal learning to have compassion with the people in her life. She walks two moons in many other people's shoes, so that she can understand what it's like to be them. As a result, the story absolutely, positively empathetic. This is perhaps best summed up by the game that Sal and Gramps play at the end of the novel:
We both play the moccasin game. It's a game we made up on our way back from Idaho. We take turns pretending we are walking in someone else's moccasins.
"If I were walking in Peeby's moccasins, I would be jealous of a new brother dropping out of the sky."
"If I were in Gram's moccasins right this minute, I would want to cool my feet in that river over there."
"If I were walking in Ben's moccasins, I would miss Salamanca Hiddle."
On and on we go. (44.5-9)
Isn't that an awesome game? Sal and Gramps actually empathize with people for fun – it's their idea of entertainment. Shmoop thinks that's pretty cool.
So many people have to cope with death, grief, and loss in Walk Two Moons. It's everywhere. In the loss of Sal's mom, the loss of Gram, the loss (and return!) of Mrs. Winterbottom. Death is a very important theme, and Sal in particular struggles to understand what it means and how in the world she's supposed to deal with it.
As a result, the story has quite a mournful feel. As Sal puts it, "we can't explain all the truly awful things in the world like war and murder and brain tumors, and we can't fix these things" (44.14). Terrible things do happen in life, and there's not much anyone can do about it. There's no predicting what life will bring, except that at some point, you will lose something or someone you love.
However, even though there is lots of sadness everywhere, there is also a whole boat load of hope and beauty in this story, too. It would be very easy for Sal to get lost in all of the sadness in her life, but at the end of the story she seems to be filled with hope, despite all the tough times she has gone through. There's the other box – not Pandora's – that's filled with wonderful things, and as Sal puts it, "It is a relief to discover that although there might be axe-murderers and kidnappers in the world, most people are a lot like us" (44.14).
Thirteen-year-old Sal heads out in search of her mother, and she learns how to live without her along the way. In this sense, you might say she grows up, because she's learning how to handle the tougher stuff of life, and by the end of her journey, she's a new, stronger, wiser person. In literature, we like to call this a coming of age story.
Plus, she totally succeeds on her quest. Although she struggles for a long time with admitting that she can't actually bring her mother back, Sal finally comes to terms with that fact, and bids her mother farewell. We think Sal has a lot to be proud of.
Oh, and as for that whole mystery thing? Well, Sal helps solve the mystery of her friend Phoebe's missing mother, which, as it turns out, is no mystery at all. And, of course, there's the mystery – for the readers, at least – of what happened to Sal's own mother. In any case, this book is full of secrets, and we spend a lot of our own reading time putting together the clues.
What does it mean to walk a moon? And two moons? Planet Earth only has one moon, right? What the heck is going on here? Does this mean we need moon boots?
Ever heard of that phrase, "to walk in someone else's shoes?" Well, that's what this book is all about. This is a story about learning to understand what someone is going through before you judge them.
But let's back up a bit. In Chapter 9, the Winterbottoms find a message on their doorstep that reads, "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins" (9.28). They're stumped, but Sal knows what's up:
"I know what it means," I said. "I've heard my father use it lots of times. I used to imagine that there were two moons sitting in a pair of Indian shoes, but my father said it means that you shouldn't judge someone until you've walked in their moccasins. Until you've been in their shoes. In their place." (11.15)
Over the course of the story, Sal steps into a whole pile of moccasins. Eventually, she even walks in the shoes of her biggest enemy, Mrs. Cadaver, and discovers things beyond her wildest imagination. Upon hearing about the tragic death of Mrs. Cadaver's husband, Sal says, "I imagined Mrs. Cadaver touching her husband's face. It was as if I was walking in her moccasins, that's how much my own heart was pumping and my own hands were sweating" (33.28). Sal empathizes so much with Mrs. Cadaver at this moment, that her heart starts to race and her hands sweat. Walking in another person's moccasins sure does pack a punch.
Perhaps the most important moccasins that Sal slips on and strolls around in are those of her own mother. When she goes on that road trip with her grandparents, Sal is literally following in her mother's footsteps. They're on the same roads, visiting the same places, seeing the same sights. And over the course of that road trip (and perhaps even before), Sal learns much more about her mother than she ever expected. But in the end she also learns that there are some things about those we love that we can never really understand, no matter how much we try to wear those shoes.
Why Two Moons?
We also think it's important to consider that this title is Walk Two Moons and not Walk in Someone Else's Shoes. First of all, the phrase, "walk two moons," is kind of a peculiar one that makes us think twice about what it could possibly mean. It's not something you hear every day, right? In fact, it's hardly even a sentence. We humans are only used to having one moon around, so the idea of two moons makes us feel like this might be a story about something magical, fantastical, or extraordinary.
Of course we come to learn the true meaning of the phrase, and we can guess that "two moons" means "two months." Moons wax and wane just like human beings do. Usually we have one full moon every month, and so if we were going to walk for two moons, that probably means we'll be walking for two months.
The fact that "moons" show up in this title hints at the fact that nature is going to be big part of this story. With all their waxing and waning, moons are symbolic of the cycles of life, both in nature, and in humans. Could we could take this a step further and suggest that in order to understand someone else fully, in order to walk in their shoes, you have to be connected to nature in some way? We think it's possible, but then again, Shmoop could be totally off our rocker.
All in all, Shmoop thinks this title is just about perfect. In a book where Sal struggles to understand all kinds of difficult things, the biggest challenge she faces is understanding and empathizing with those around her – her mom in particular. But now she knows that all you have to do is borrow a pair of moccasins and you'll be well on your way to empathy.
Beware of reading further if you haven't read this amazing book yet. The ending will blow your mind.
Sharon Creech spent three years finishing this book (source). And that makes sense to us. The ending of this book is like poetry, and poetry takes time to percolate. Are we right, or are we right?
At the end of Walk Two Moons, Sal, her father, and Gramps return to their farm in Bybanks, Kentucky. They bury Gram, and life returns to almost-normal. Sal has made peace with her mother's death in a way, although she still misses her. She misses her friends in Ohio, too, but Mrs. Cadaver, Mrs. Partridge, Phoebe, Ben, and Mr. Birkway are all going to visit Sal next month.
Two huge things happen at the very end of this story, and one big secret is revealed. We realize for the first time that Sal's mom actually died in a horrific bus accident in Lewiston, Idaho. Up until this point, we readers had no idea what had happened to Chanhassen Hiddle; all we knew was that she had left home and that she is somewhere in Idaho. On the day that Sal drives her grandfather's car down winding roads to the site of her mother's death, her grandmother also dies from a stroke. Sal finds herself in the middle of thunderstorm of grief.
But none of that is, strictly speaking, the ending. The ending comes later, when Sal's back in Bybanks and looking back over the past year or so of her life. The last chapter is like a wide angle shot of Sal's days in Bybanks, and it's very rewarding to see how she's doing.
For one thing, it's clear that she has gone through a transformation. She has become incredibly strong and she has learned to forgive and understand her mother more than ever before. Sal is able to live her life, grow, and love more fully and completely than ever before.
She's still got some room for improvement – a fact we think she'd be totally willing to admit – but overall we have high hope for our girl's happiness. What about you?
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?
"Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins."
Have you ever heard of that phrase, "try to put yourself in someone else's shoes?" It basically means, "try to imagine what it must be like to be someone else." Why would you want to imagine what it must be like to be someone else? Well, so that you can learn not to judge them so quickly, so that you can learn to empathize with them. How do you empathize with someone? You use your imagination to figure out what it must be like to be them and to experience what they are experiencing. Well, that's pretty much what Walk Two Moons is all about.
The epigraph, "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins," also appears in the actual story, scribbled on a piece of paper and left at Phoebe's door. Phoebe and Sal think that a lunatic who plans on killing Phoebe and her family is responsible. This saying becomes the heart of this whole story. In fact, the book's title even comes from this saying.
(2) Sea Level
Don't be fooled – there's a lot going on here. Humans are complicated, and this book is all about how complicated they can be. Two stories (and maybe even more) weave together here in a way that sometimes boggles our minds. Hang on for the ride, though, and you won't be sorry. We recommend reading this book multiple times. Each time you read it, you will learn new things about Sal. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure book, because there are so many different stories to attract your attention.
Sal uses all five senses when she observes things. Yep, that's right: a country girl from a farm in Bybanks notices how things smell, taste, look, feel, and sound. Want a fun project? Go through this book and keep track of all of the time Sal talks about how things taste and smell and feel. You might notice that her senses really kick into gear around Ben Finney:
Tommy bashed into me, and when I started to fall backward, Ben caught me. He put his arms around my waist and held on to me, even after it was obvious that I was not going to fall. I could smell that funny grapefruit smell again and feel his face pressed up against my hair. (11.29)
If that description doesn't get your heart humming, we don't know what will. Grapefruits have such a delicious smell that we don't need one in front of our noses in order to smell it – we remember from our own experience. This is some great storytelling. We readers get to smell, feel, and taste things right along with Sal. It's kind of like a high-def reading experience.
Sal is also a really patient storyteller. She likes to give us all of the sensory details, instead of just summarizing what's going on. Consider all of the times Sal talks about the things she has of her mother's:
In my bureau were three things of hers that I had taken from her closet after she had left: a red, fringed shawl; a blue sweater; and a yellow-flowered cotton dress that was always my favorite. These things had her smell on them. (30.52)
Again, she uses her senses to describe these beautiful things that belonged to her mother. We can see and smell them right along with her, which makes our understanding of her mother all the more vivid.
Our girl is definitely not in a hurry to tell her story. She takes her time, almost as though she really wants to do it justice. And because Sal is quite smart, she knows just when to reveal what. Think about how she intertwines all the stories together. Instead of first telling us about Bybanks, and then telling us about Euclid, and then telling us about her road trip, she tells us about all three at once. She flits back and forth between them and braids them together into a bewitching concoction of pure awesomeness.
As we read, there are so many ways in which we're kept in the dark. Just what exactly happened to Sal's mom? And what about Mrs. Winterbottom? Who is leaving those messages on the Winterbottoms' front stoop? If you think about it, Sal is telling us this story in the past tense, so she already knows the answers to these questions. But she's the ultimate secret keeper, and we actually really like that about her. It makes every rereading of the book a whole new experience, and every page turn a thrill.
And finally, Shmoop would like to draw your attention to all the colorful colloquialisms (that is, words or phrases in everyday, ordinary conversation) that Sal uses to tell her story. She must get these from her hometown of Bybanks, because Gram and Gramps use similar phrases and words. Sometimes they're so quirky that they might throw you for a loop, but hopefully this guide will help:
What other words or phrases can you add to this list? Does Sal have any phrases of her own?
There are a LOT of symbols in this story. You'll probably notice way more than we come up with here. We love Mr. Birkway's explanation of how to understand a symbol, so we're kicking this discussion off with his advice.
In Chapter 32 he shows his class a picture of something and asks each of his students to tell him what they see. Some see a vase, others see two heads in profile. Then, something awesome happens:
Then Mr. Birkway pointed out how you could see both. If you looked only at the white part in the center, you could clearly see the vase. If you looked only at the dark parts on the side, you could see two profiles. The curvy sides of the vase became the outline of the two heads facing each other. (32.60)
Mr. Birkway's explanation helps us understand that there's more than one way to interpret a symbol. Every person will have a different way of understanding what he or she sees or reads, and that's pretty darn cool. In fact, it's kind of fun. Similarly, there's no one way to understand life or the things in it. Everyone has his or her own unique perspective.
Salamanca Hiddle is our awesome narrator. She takes turns telling us about her road trip from Missouri to Idaho with Gram and Gramps and telling Gram and Gramps the story of Phoebe's missing mother.
She's a good narrator because she notices everything. She is a professional observer. In fact, if she had a superpower, it would be the power of noticing things. For example, she picks up on Mrs. Winterbottom's unhappiness immediately.
I could tell that Mrs. Winterbottom was trying to rise above some awful sadness she was feeling, but Prudence couldn't see that. Prudence had her own agenda. (17.22)
One other thing that really defines Sal as a narrator is just how much she likes to tell us about her memories. It seems like every two seconds something she sees or hears reminds her of something back in Bybanks. For example, when Mrs. Winterbottom offers her blackberry pie, Sal remembers her mother, and a particular blackberry picking trip they took together (6.18). The best part is, she always brings us along for these awesome trips down memory lane.
Walk Two Moons would be a totally different book if it weren't told by Sal, and to be honest, we're not so sure we'd want to read it.
We wouldn't argue you with you if you said that this book has two different plots to analyze. In fact, we wouldn't argue with you if you said that this book has many different plots to analyze! In addition to the story of Sal's journey to Lewiston, Idaho, there's also Phoebe's journey to find her own mother, too. These two stories weave in and out of one another like a braid. And then, of course, there's also Gram and Gramps' story. We are going to look at Sal's story in particular, but don't let that stop you from mapping out Phoebe's story and Gram and Gramps' story on your own.
In Sal's story (as she tells it to us), the initial situation involves a move to a town that she really hates. Euclid, Ohio is nothing like her hometown of Bybanks, Kentucky. Her mother has just left the family. Sal misses her a lot, so she and her grandparents (Gram and Gramps Hiddle) go on a road trip to pay her mother a visit.
Explanation/Discussion: Sal really wants to get to Lewiston, Idaho in time for her mother's birthday. However, her grandparents have a tendency to get into harmless trouble, which delays them on their journey. Sal's sense of urgency is made worse by the fact that she is totally terrified of cars.
One day during their road trip, Gram, Gramps, and Sal decide to go swimming in a South Dakota river. A young man tries to rob them while they are swimming, and Gram is bitten by a water moccasin as they are being held at knifepoint in the water. Yikes. Luckily, the young man helps them find a hospital, and Gram is treated for her snakebite, but she's still not feeling too hot.
On the drive from Wyoming to Coeur d'Alene, Gram starts to feel and look really sick. When they finally arrive in Coeur d'Alene after a long drive, Gram is unconscious. They take her to the hospital, where she is hooked up to lots of machines. The doctors tell Gramps and Sal that Gram has had a stroke. It's midnight when Sal is allowed to see Gram in the hospital. It's her mother's birthday, the day she is supposed to be in Lewiston. Gram is still unconscious, and Gramps gives Sal the keys to the car and some money. He tells her to go do what she needs to do.
It's midnight on her mother's birthday. It's the day that Sal is supposed to be in Lewiston. Sal is super nervous, but she is also totally determined. She drives four hours in the dead of night to an overlook on the road from Lewiston Hill to Lewiston. It's a very dangerous and scary road that winds beside huge drop-offs and cliffs. Will she make it? What will be waiting for her when she arrives, anyway?
The sheriff and his deputy are shocked to discover that Sal has driven herself from Coeur d'Alene. They are sympathetic once they realize why she's made such a dangerous trip – to visit her mother's grave. The sheriff drives Sal back to Coeur d'Alene, and she asks him questions about the bus accident the whole way there. (Turns out Sal's mom died in an accident.) When they get to Coeur d'Alene, Sal learns that her grandmother passed away at 3 o'clock that morning. She hugs her gramps.
Gram's body is sent back to Bybanks. Gramps and Sal drive back to Bybanks where they lay Gram to rest. Sal and her dad move back to their farm, where Sal spends her free time practicing her driving with Gramps, and playing a game in which they imagine what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes. At the time Sal is telling this story, it is July. Her friends from Euclid (Phoebe, Ben, Mrs. Cadaver, Mrs. Partridge, and Mr. Birkway) are coming to visit her next month, and she is very excited.