African-American author Toni Cade Bambara is perhaps best known for her short stories such as "Raymond's Run" and "The Lesson." After publishing two collections of short stories, Gorilla, My Love (1972) and The Seabirds Are Still Alive (1977), she turned to writing The Salt Eaters. An accomplished short story writer and novelist, her first love was film (Bambara, Deep Sightings, x). After making several films and documentaries, Bambara died in 1995. However, Bambara's estate published two posthumous works: a second novel, Those Bones Are Not My Child (1999), about the Atlanta child murders, and Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (1996), a collection introduced by Bambara's friend and editor Toni Morrison. Bambara often wrote from self-assigned topics and explained that The Salt Eaters came from a desire to bridge the spiritual and the political, "to investigate possible ways to bring our technicians of the sacred and our guerillas together" (Bambara "Interview," 31). New readers might usefully follow Bambara's connective suggestion and approach this complex novel with a willingness to think and read by association, rather than by strictly linear development. Though Bambara divides the novel into 12 chapters that occur over the same "real time" day, many chapters contain the viewpoints of multiple characters. Moreover, these multiple viewpoints flash back to several time periods, including the future conditional, or "what might have been." As literary critic Eleanor Traynor accurately describes it, time in The Salt Eaters is "convergent" (Traynor, 65). The symbolism of the novel's title insists on the need for balance: Salt can be an antidote for a snake bite, but in excess quantities it can often kill.
Because the novel focuses on a tightly knit community, many characters have relatives and past experiences in common. Velma, one of the novel's main characters, is wife to James "Obie" Henry, head of the Academy of 7 Arts and sister to Palma, one of the "Seven Sisters" performing arts troupe who is traveling by bus to Claybourne; she is also friends with Jan and Ruby, who share lunchtime insights about Velma's life over the course of several chapters.
The "present" of The Salt Eaters takes place in the fictional town of Claybourne, Georgia, in the late 1970s. As the novel opens, two events bring the predominantly African-American community together: the failed suicide attempt of Velma Henry, community activist, and the Spring Festival, an event designed by Claybourne's Academy of the 7 Arts as a reenactment of a Mardi Gras slave insurrection and "a holding action . . . to encourage everyone to work together" (92). Velma's healing involves diverse individuals from the Claybourne Infirmary, including the wise-woman healer Minnie Ransom, the older doctor Doc Serge, the younger doctor Julius Meadows, and the 12-member "Master's Mind." Other communities include the multicultural, multiracial Seven Sisters, a troupe of performance artists; the Academy of the 7 Arts, Claybourne's once-vibrant community center; and the community between Jan and Ruby, two friends having lunch. Gloria (Akasha) Hull's essay usefully explicates the names and natures of the novel's interconnected characters. Early scholarship on The Salt Eaters involves an explication of characters (Hull) and the jazz intricacies (Traynor). More recent scholarship emphasizes the novel's multiple viewpoints and experimental structure and novel's "postmodern" aesthetic: the efficacy of language in political change (Burks), agency, or one's ability to act (Alwes), and "schizophrenic" structures (Butler-Evans). However, other critics have chosen to focus on the novel's holistic urges toward reconciliation, redemption, and multiracial coalition (Willis, Nimura).
The entire first chapter, approximately 40 pages, exemplifies the novel's associative chronological thinking. Though this chapter occurs over an hour of "real time," it moves between the "present" of the Infirmary and several associative flashbacks from Velma's point of view. The healer Minnie asks Velma, "Are you sure . . . that you want to be well?" (1). In silent response to Minnie's question, Velma begins a series of reminiscences that travel between the "present" of the Infirmary back to the beginnings of her failing relationship with her husband, James "Obie" Henry, her frustrations with the chauvinism of the Civil Rights movement, and her childhood memories. While Velma's mind "goes traveling," Minnie consults her spirit guide, "Old Wife," for advice, since Velma's healing appears to be a special case. What "ails" Velma goes deeper than overwork and exhaustion, just as what "ails" the community goes deeper than the poison of the encroaching nuclear power plant. However, as one of Velma's friends insists later in the novel, "They're connected" (242). Thus the chapter establishes several important themes in the novel: the "wasteful and dangerous split" between community activists and spiritual healers; the costs and benefits of working in coalitions; the urgent need to recognize the interdependence of past, present, and future; and the function of agency in health and wholeness.
Alwes, Derek. "The Burden of Liberty: Choice in Toni Morrison's Jazz and Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters," African American Review 30, no. 3 (1996): 353-365.
Bambara, Toni Cade. "Interview." In Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, 12-38. New York: Continuum, 1983.
Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. "From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, 48-58. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1984.
Butler-Evans, Elliott. "Rewriting and Revising in the 1980s: Tar Baby, The Color Purple, and The Salt Eaters." In Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989, pp. 151-187.
Byerman, Keith. "Healing Arts: Folklore and the Female Self in Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters," Postscript 5 (1988): 37-43.
Hull, Gloria. "What It Is I Think She's Doing Anyhow: A Reading of Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters." In Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, 124-142. Latham, N.Y.: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983.
Nimura, Tamiko. "In a Coalitional Mode: African American Literatures, Asian American Literatures, and the Politics of Comparison," Dissertation. University of Washington, Seattle, Wash., 2004.
Traynor, Eleanor W. "Music as Theme: The Jazz Mode in the Works of Toni Cade Bambara." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans, 58-70. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984.
Willis, Susan. "Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara's Stories for the Revolution." In Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. 129-158. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
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