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[SPOILER ALERT! Proceed with caution.]
Sal is our kickbutt narrator. In our humble Shmoop opinion, she's one of the all-time best young adult narrators. She is wise beyond her years, and she loves life with every molecule of her being. She copes with lots of sadness and pain, and she does it in a pretty remarkable way. Also, she uses all five of her senses when she observes and notices things. All these awesome qualities make for a truly delicious story told by a delightful character. We learn right away the following things about Sal:
Name: Salamanca Tree Hiddle
Parents: Chanhassen Hiddle and Dad Hiddle
Hometown: Bybanks, Kentucky
Likes: Trees, blackberries, her long hair, songbirds, her farm, animals, swimming, anything that has to do with nature, exploring, Ben Finney, Gram and Gramps
Dislikes: Cars, planes, trains, buses, pregnant women, Euclid, OH
Best Friend: Phoebe Winterbottom
Sal grew up in Bybanks, Kentucky on a country farm. She grew up around cows, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, birds, and many, many beautiful trees. She learned through her mother and father how to respect nature. Nature is her playground, and it is also the way she connects to things greater than herself.
The cool thing about Sal is that she is an amazing storyteller. She can spin a yarn better than most people three times her age. She is not conceited or selfish. She doesn't spend all of her time talking about herself and her wants, needs, fears, and worries. Instead, she tells us about the people around her. In fact, she's quite the observer. Because of this, we get to know everyone in her life very well.
Nope, Sal is definitely not a self-absorbed narrator, which makes it harder to get a crystal clear picture of who she is. However, we can learn a lot about her by observing how she tells her stories. What kinds of things does she notice? Who does she often talk about? What does she find funny? What does she find sad? In asking these questions, we can really explore the huge journey that Sal goes on – both literally and figuratively.
Remember the secret messages that mysteriously appear on the Winterbottoms' doorstep? Well, we're going to explore Sal's journey through these five mysterious messages. They almost sound like fortunes from fortune cookies, and they are chock full of wisdom. (Check out our "In a Nutshell" to hear about how a fortune cookie got this story started.) Strangely, these messages have a lot to do with Sal:
Don't judge a person until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.
Everyone has his own agenda.
In the course of a lifetime, what does it matter?
You can't keep the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.
We never know the worth of water until the well runs dry.
Ready? Let's jump in.
It seems like everyone's judging someone else in this story. Phoebe judges the lunatic, Ben, her mother, and Mrs. Cadaver. The entire Winterbottom family judges Mrs. Winterbottom. Sal judges Mrs. Cadaver, her father, and her mother. All this judging makes sense, if you think about it, because it's a way of getting by – a way of dealing with and understanding sadness or emptiness. Sal needs to judge the people in her life in order to make sense of why her own mother would leave her. She wants nice, clean answers, and she searches for these answers in those around her. She thinks maybe she'll feel better if she just blames someone else for her hurt.
However, things are not always so cut and dry for Sal. One of the biggest lessons she learns is to walk in someone else's shoes, er, moccasins. By the end of the novel, Sal has learned to walk in the moccasins of her greatest enemy – Mrs. Cadaver. At first Sal believes that Mrs. Cadaver is an evil, manipulative woman who has latched on to her grieving father. She buys into Phoebe's suspicions that Mrs. Cadaver is an axe-murderer who killed her own husband and buried him in her backyard. But, oh, how wrong Sal and Phoebe are!
After Mr. Birkway tells Sal and Phoebe the true story of how Mrs. Cadaver's husband died, Sal suddenly changes. A lot. She empathizes with Mrs. Cadaver and is able to imagine what it must have been like for her to watch her husband die from a car accident.
I could feel her heart thumping like mad as she realized it was her own husband and her own mother lying there. 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. (33.27)
By walking in Mrs. Cadaver's moccasins, Sal actually has a physical reaction. She can feel what Mrs. Cadaver must have felt, emotionally and physically. She uses her great ability to channel her senses in order to understand the person she had previously hated the most. Sal is very good at learning things about herself and others. She may be stubborn, but she confronts those fears that make her so stubborn.
In this way, we begin to see that walking in someone else's moccasins has a lot to do with being able to empathize with them (feel what they are feeling). And it seems like being able to empathize with someone requires a very vivid imagination, which is good because Sal has one of the most vivid imaginations of all. After Sal is able to walk in Mrs. Cadaver's moccasins, she can no longer judge her or blame her. She understands her.
After learning the real story of Mrs. Cadaver's husband, Sal continues to walk in Mrs. Cadaver's moccasins. Sal goes to her after months of ignoring her and asks her how she met her father. Sal has always been deeply afraid that Mrs. Cadaver has been trying to replace her mother. She faces this big, huge fear, knowing that what she learns might be very difficult to process. By facing her fear, she discovers that Mrs. Cadaver was actually the last person to see and speak to her missing mother. Her conversation with Mrs. Cadaver tells her even more about her own mom.
Perhaps the most important moccasins in Sal's life are those of her mother. Sal literally retraces her mother's footsteps as she goes on a road trip from Euclid to Idaho. In doing so, she finds her way to the site of her mother's death and is able to imagine where her mother spent her final days. When Sal comes to terms with the fact that her mom and her grandma are never coming back, Sal suddenly realizes why her grandparents take her on road trip to Idaho.
A person had to go out and do things and see things, and I wondered, for the first time, if this had something to do with Gram and Gramps taking me on this trip. (41.7)
Sal learns that walking in someone else's moccasins helps you see things for yourself. Now she knows her mom won't be coming back, but on the trip she also gets a better idea of why her mother left in the first place, which is something she's been painfully struggling with for quite a while.
Sal's journey in both Mrs. Cadaver's and her mom's moccasins leads her to be less afraid and more open to the world around her and all the kooky people in it. We feel certain that many more journeys await Sal and that she'll approach them with great enthusiasm and gusto.
First of all, it might be helpful here to define what "agenda" means. Merriam-Webster says this word means:
Great! So an agenda can be both a to-do list and an ulterior motive. Now, does everyone really have his own agenda? We think what this message is trying to say is that everyone is just trying to get by and do the best that they can do. Everyone's looking out for themselves in their own way, which can sometimes make it hard to understand just what the heck a person's doing.
How does this particular message relate to Sal? Well, by recognizing that her mother was just trying to get by and figure things out in her own life, Sal realizes that she had nothing to do with her mom's leaving. Her mom needed to do what her mom needed to do.
Still, that's a hard pill to swallow, because mothers are super important. No matter how fleeting or lasting our relationships are with them, they teach us how to exist in the world. Sal struggles most with the fact that in losing her mother, she's lost her source of understanding how to be and how to live in the world. Suddenly, she's out on her own:
When my mother had been there, I was like a mirror. If she was happy, I was happy. If she was sad, I was sad. For the first few days after she left, I felt numb, non-feeling. I didn't know how to feel. I would find myself looking around for her, to see what I might want to feel. (7.13)
Losing your mother is scary, and it takes Sal a while to learn to live without her. But when she does, she feels kind of triumphant and hopeful. For example, when she observes a baby calf being born one day after her mother has left, Sal feels happy and excited all on her own. She doesn't need to be her mother's mirror:
I was surprised that I knew this all by myself, without my mother there. And that night in bed, I did not cry. I said to myself, 'Salamanca Tree Hiddle, you can be happy without her.' It seemed a mean thought, and I was sorry for it, but it felt true. (7.14)
Do you think that this is a mean thought? What do you think Sal means when she says, "but it felt true?" She's got a lot of confusing emotions churning around, but it almost seems like she's starting to realize something: while her mother's leaving was the most painful thing that could happen to her, could it also be a gesture of love?
Whoa. That doesn't sound right, but let's see if Sal can help us wrap our minds around this idea: "While I prayed for Gram outside the hospital, I wondered if my mother's trip to the Idaho was like Moody Blue's behavior. Maybe part of it was for my mother and part of it was for me" (41.13). Just as Moody Blue, her old family dog, pushed her puppies away after weeks of nursing them, her mom pushed Sal away by leaving her in Bybanks. Both Moody Blue and Sal's mom did this so that their children could survive and thrive on their own.
But Sal's mom also left because she needed to figure some of her own stuff out, too, which is hard for Sal to understand at first. One thing that helps is her observation of how the Winterbottom family treats Mrs. Winterbottom. Seeing Mrs. Winterbottom struggle with some deep, dark problems while her family totally ignores her, helps Sal better understand her own family, and prompts her to ask herself, "Had I been drawing away from my own mother? Did she have empty spaces left over? Was that why she left?" (11.56). Sal's mom is, in a lot of ways, a lot like Phoebe's. And when Sal learns the truth about Phoebe's mom, it helps her understand her own mother.
By the end of the novel, Sal is able to forgive her mother and is able to feel both sadness and love for her mother, all at the same time. Finally, she can say goodbye, knowing that her mother lives on in the trees and songs around her. She able to understand that it's a-okay to be sad and happy, angry and forgiving, hopeful and despairing all at once. Even if it's a little bit confusing.
Ever heard someone say, "reality check!"? It's a way of saying, "Hey, maybe my worries and struggles are pretty small in the grand scheme of things. Maybe I should just let them go and focus on the big picture."
It's often the small things that trip everyone up. For example, Sal and Phoebe get so hooked on the details of Mrs. Cadaver's life that they actually convince themselves that she's an axe-murderer, despite all evidence to the contrary. They both have reasons to hate Mrs. Cadaver, and they fixate on the small details, like the fact that she plants a rhododendron bush in her backyard. If they just stood back and looked at the big picture, they might see that, in reality, she's a hardworking nurse who takes care of her elderly mother.
To be fair, sometimes it's the small things that really help people cope with the big things. Sal explains at the end of her story:
It seems to me that 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, so we look at the frightening things that are closer to us and we magnify them until they burst open. Inside is something that we can manage, something that isn't as awful as it had first seemed. (44.14)
Consider that phrase, "inside is something that we can manage." Perhaps, Sal and Phoebe are so overwhelmed with sadness at having lost their mothers that they are looking for ways to cope. So they cope by looking for something to "manage," something they can control and understand. Could that be why Phoebe becomes so convinced that a lunatic has kidnapped her mother and that Mrs. Cadaver is an axe-murderer? We think so, because even though it's a fantastical story, it's also a simple explanation – much simpler than the real one. And by focusing on simple (if ridiculous) explanations, Sal and Phoebe can escape the sadness that they feel.
But as this secret message tells us, "in the course of a lifetime, what does it matter?". It's actually the big picture that counts. Life is huge and scary and full of things that cannot be explained. In letting go of trying to find something to manage, or some satisfying scapegoat for her pain, Sal is able to focus on the big picture, to say goodbye to her mother, and to move on with her own, full, totally awesome life.
We wouldn't argue with you if you told us that this book is all about Sal's mom. Of all the things she struggles with, Sal seems to struggle most with the fact that her mom has left her. Why would her mom want to leave her? How could her mom bear to live without her? Why wasn't Sal enough to make her stay? Those have got to be pretty painful questions to live with. It's no wonder Sal throws such temper tantrums and gets so ornery sometimes.
Instead of telling us how sad and frustrated she is that her mother left, Sal tells us about what she does to remember her mother. By observing her actions, we start to understand just how sad and lost Sal is. Let's take a look at a passage from Chapter 30:
When we moved to Euclid, one of the first things I did was to unpack the gifts my mother had given me. On the wall, I tacked the poster of the red hen which my mother had given me for my fifth birthday, and the drawing of the barn she had given me for my last birthday. On my desk were pictures of her and cards from her. On the bookshelf, the wooden animals and books were presents from her.
Sometimes, I would walk around the room and look at each of these things and try to remember exactly the day she had given them to me. I tried to picture what the weather was like and what room we were in and what she was wearing and what precisely she had said. This was not a game. It was a necessary, crucial thing to do. If I did not have these things and remember these occasions, then she might disappear forever. She might have never been. (30.50-51)
Sal holds onto the details of her memories of her mother in order to hold onto her mother. She doesn't want to let go of her mother yet. But as she longs for her mom to come home, Sal starts to understand her relationship to her mom and to her own self better and better. Sal begins to understand that she can live and survive without her mother, which is terrifying and comforting all at the same time. Ambiguity alert! We told you this book is jam-packed with ambiguity and contradiction.
Okay, now back to the message. Let's unpack it: you can't keep the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair. The message seems to say, "life is hard and sometimes full of sadness, and there's nothing you can do about it – but, you do have control over how you let this sadness affect you." Sal tries so hard to do something with her sadness, to make it go away by blaming other people or pretending that things aren't the way they are. But in the process, she just gets sadder and sadder. It's only when she's able to recognize that sometimes sad things happen for no good reason (like the deaths of her mother and grandmother), and that there's nothing to do but accept this, move on, and keep her heart open.
If we were to translate this message, we would probably say something like, "you don't know how good you have it until it's gone." This message seems to apply most of all to Phoebe and her family who don't know the worth of Mrs. Winterbottom until she leaves them and things start to fall apart. Sal, on the other hand, never seems to have wasted a single moment with her mother before she left. Sal is so good at noticing things and observing things, she always knows the worth of water before the well runs dry.
Still, Sal's sadness gets in the way of that sometimes. She grieves for her mother so much that she's mean to her wonderful father, Mrs. Cadaver, and even, sometimes, Phoebe. But once she learns to keep the birds of sadness from nesting in her hair, Sal is really able to value all of the good and happy things in her life – even Mrs. Cadaver. She is able to come to terms with her mother's death and that frees her up to be happy and to really love what she loves. At the end of her story, we see her in her favorite place in the world, her Bybanks farm, soaking up as much time as possible with her Gramps, her dad, and all her favorite trees and animals.
We feel like this message applies a bit to us, as readers, too. We devoured this story in one big gulp, because it was so good. But now we really miss it, and so we're diving back in and trying to understand all of its layers. Fortunately for us, we can read and reread this story until the cows come home.