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When I turned four, my father taught me the salt dance: he sprinkled a line of salt on the living room floor, positioned my bare feet on top of his shoes, and told me to leave everything I feared or no longer wanted behind that line. His gold-flecked eyes high above me, he walked me across that salt border into my brand-new year -- he backward, I forward -- my chin tilted against the buttons of his silk vest.
I would like to believe that the salt dance was a ritual he and my mother had seen on one of their journeys -- in a mountain village in South America, say, or in Sicily -- but my father simply made it up the day I turned four, and from then on it became a tradition in our family on birthdays as if backed by generations. Though I no longer recall what I left behind the salt line that day or chose to take with me, I can still evoke the tingling in my arms as they encircled my father's lanky waist. Below his right eyebrow curved the moon-sliver scar where a dog had bitten him when he was a boy. Rooted to his feet, I didn't slip off as we danced, careful at first -- "Two steps to the right, Julia, one to the left" -- then spinning through the rooms, past the radiant faces of my mother and brother.
When I was nine years old, I stopped loving my father. Of course it didn't happen all at once: it was rather a waning of trust until it became safer to believe that I ceased loving him altogether that one summer evening when he brought me chocolate with hazelnuts and lifted me from the windowsill and forced me to say I loved him.
Somewhere between those two images that continue to haunt me, things twisted, turned on themselves, and when Ifinally crossed the country and returned home to Spokane -- forty-one, pregnant, and unmarried -- it was because I was afraid I'd mess up my child's life if I didn't sort out before her birth why things had gone so terribly wrong with my family.
I still hadn't told my father I was pregnant when I walked with him down the path that led to our lake cottage. Old tracks had settled into deep, overgrown ruts; I walked barefoot in the furrow, my father above me on the wide band of grass that grew on the right. From time to time his bare elbow rubbed against me. I had to hold back to match his shuffle. He was slighter than I remembered him as if, as a girl, I had painted his younger version on a balloon and, in the years since, had let out some air, shrinking his likeness just enough to shift the edges of his body inward, render him harmless. It was ironic -- now that the edges of my body were being pushed out, though not enough yet to proclaim my secret. My breasts were fuller -- I felt their weight when I walked -- and my clothes had grown tight, but the choice to tell was still mine.
Until two summers ago I'd known for certain that I didn't want a child, but a few months before I'd turned forty, an absurd yearning for a baby had attached itself to me. I could banish it as long as I didn't swim, but whenever I did my laps in the pool at the Y or floated in one of the lakes near my house in Vermont, the water rocked me into images of myself holding an infant. A girl child. What made it even more absurd was that I didn't have a lover at the time and felt content without one. My friend Claudia and I laughed about it: I didn't long for a man -- I wanted a child.
Claudia, who also was my dentist, speculated on biological urges, internal time clocks, and finally resorted to the prescription: "Just stay out of the water, for Christ's sakes, before you trap yourself into having a midlife baby."
But her Aunt Edith, who'd recently moved in with Claudia and her family, eagerly offered to take care of any midlife baby I'd trap myself into having. A girdle fitter by profession, Aunt Edith had retired from Alexander's department store in the Bronx, where -- as she liked to put it -- she "used to stuff fat tochises into girdles for forty-five years." Taking care of a baby, she said, would be a vacation.
"A daughter" the doctor had told me during the ultrasound, and I'd nodded because I already knew. "Everything looks fine."
Until I'd seen the landscape of my child -- delicate threads of shadow and light racing across the cone-shaped field on the gray computer screen -- I had thought of my pregnancy as a condition, surprising and unsettling, but when the sound waves traveled through my flesh and bounced off the fetus, I saw translucent bubbles, stalactites and stalagmites, a harp even. My child initiated me into a world that existed already within me, oddly familiar yet foreign, as though I were looking through a kaleidoscope that didn't detain shapes but, in the shifting of threads, created a fluid impression, movement.
Claudia was with me, one of her large hands on my arm as the technician guided the transducer across the warm gel she'd squirted on my belly. "They didn't do this when I was pregnant." Her round face leaned closer to the screen. "So tiny" she whispered. In her family everyone, including Claudia, was exactly six feet tall. Both of her sons were already in college, young men with wide wrists and shoulders like their parents'.
I felt awed that the intricacy of what filled the screen would come together to form my child. Sometimes the landscape seemed surreal until the technician would point to the stomach, the labia, the femur. The heart pulsed like a tiny dark mouth opening and closing. A circle with a slender gap at the top turned out to be my child's thumb and fingers, about to touch. As I recognized the contour of my daughter's chin and mouth, she yawned. Her tongue stretched. And that's when she became real to me.
Though her shape was immediately lost to me in the overplay of swift threads, I waited for her to emerge from that canvas, a prelude to her birth. I wanted to see her in color -- not just in gray through the practiced eyes of the technician -- wanted to recognize the sum of her lines and movements as they merged, wanted to guide my hand along the elaborate bridge of her spine that arched across the screen -- a far more complex structure than I or any other architect could possibly design.
My father's leather shoes loosened fragments of dried weeds that drifted around our legs like new mosquitoes. The rich scent of sun-warmed grass filled my head. High above us soared a redtail hawk; through its tail feathers the sun broke in splinters of fire. The sky was vast and streaked with salmon-colored clouds -- the western sky of my childhood -- so different from the fragments of sky among the mountains and trees where I'd lived since college.
When my father stumbled across a root, I caught his arm, and he sagged against me. "Thank you, Julia" he wheezed. Creases gathered themselves around his lips and below his ears; his full hair had turned bone-white in the years I'd been away.
I'm stronger than my father. I used to take his strength for granted -- the kind of strength that flings you across the room, knocks you to the floor, burns imprints of his hand on your face. If I want to, I can shove him aside. Beat him. Abandon him to rot on this path like a deer shot out of season...his legs at odd angles in his chinos...his shirt stained with blood -- My heart raced as if I'd walked for hours. Those pictures I saw inside my head -- they couldn't be mine; yet, I kept staring, wishing, right to the details of him lying twisted among decaying pine needles and new moss, shielding his face from my blows. The sky tightened around me, tilted, swerved, snaring me there on that hillside in an orange-red haze of rage, both hands on my father's arm.
I let go of him, dazed that such cruelty was within me. How would it come out -- against my child? As a girl I'd promised myself that I'd never slap my children, and from there another promise had grown -- that I'd never have children.
Anywhere But Here, Mona Simpson
Vintage Books, 1992
Where Blue Begins, Janice Deaner
Signet Books, 1994
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
Pocket Books, 1986
Machine Dreams, Jayne Anne Phillips
Washington Square Press, 1992
Exposure, Kathryn Harrison
Warner Books, 1994
Family Pictures, Sue Miller
Harper Collins, 1991
The Fatigue Artist, Lynne S. Schwartz
Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995
Monkeys, Susan Minot
Pocket Books, 1989
Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
Viking Penguin, 1977
Unstrung Heroes, Franz Lidz
Random House, 1991
2. When Julia finally confronts her father, asking him why he beat her as a child, he denies it. He continues to deny it even after Travis tells him it is true. Is it possible that he really doesn't remember? How could this be? Is this answer satisfying to Julia? Is it enough for Julia to have simply spoken the truth? What is Hegi saying about the past and our ability to come to terms with it?
3. We come to understand what happens to Julia. Yet ultimately, where does her brother Travis land? Why does he still live with his father? What is the significance of his organizing yard sales? Why do you think he chose his father's side, "the wrong side" rather than Julia's, when, as a child, he knew his father was beating her? What is Travis's role in the family? How does he serve to keep things the way they were?
4. When Julia finally meets her mother, she asks her why she left her children. Lily answers, "It was better this way, Julia." When Julia confronts her further, Lily says, "It would have been harmful for you to know." Julia responds, "Not nearly as harmful as losing you without a word, wondering...." Knowing how it affected Julia, do you think Lily's choice was wise? Do you believe it would have been more harmful for Julia to have known? Why do you think Lily made this choice?
5. Both Julia and Travis are able toforgive their mother. What makes this possible? Is there power in forgiveness? What is Hegi trying to say about forgiveness? Does Julia forgive her father as well?
6. Hegi writes, "The tide was out now, and in the mist I felt betrayed, adrift without the old purpose of chasing after my mother. I'd found her, but I'd relinquished the fantasy that had served me for over thirty years. A trade of sorts -- though not even. Still, a better trade, perhaps than the one she'd made." What trade did Lily make? What did she lose and what did she gain? What might Hegi be trying to say about trading fantasy for truth?
7. In the beginning of the book, Julia recalls her recurring nightmare. "I chase down an endless corridor after a tall figure. I run as fast as I can, my breath a rattle in my throat that blocks all other sounds. The walls narrow, and the distance between us decreases, but when the figure finally turns, the face is blank. After my mother vanished, I would come to believe she was the figure in that dream -- a warning I had failed to understand." What is it Julia fails to understand? Who is the figure and how does Julia's recognition help to free her from her troubled past? Why does this dream recur? Why is this dream so important to this novel?
8. Near the end of the book, Julia begins to realize that many of the good memories she attributed to her mother -- teaching her to swim, for example -- were in reality connected to her father. As a result, she begins to question her ability to recall, "...lured into the maze of memories that tricks us with distorted reflections of what we commit to its safekeeping; and what we wrest from it changes each time we hold it against the light, depending on the slant of the light and its intensity. And so we embellish our stories. Protect ourselves with gaps. And take all of that for truth. All of it." Discuss why this observation is important to Salt Dancers in many ways. Does this understanding help Julia cope with all her memories of her father? What is Hegi saying about truth and perception?
9. In Salt Dancers, both Lily and Julia get away. Both are described as strong, independent women. Travis and Calven do not get away -- in fact they end up living together in a complex, overly dependent relationship. Why is it that the women escape while the men remain?
10. There are many references to gypsies in Salt Dancers, in particular to Lily's fascination with them. What does Lily find so intriguing about them? What do they represent for her? What do gypsies mean to Julia, and how does Hegi develop them as a metaphor?
11. What is the salt dance? What does it mean to Julia when she is a child and her father first invents it? What meaning does it acquire in the course of the novel? What does Hegi mean when, near the end of the novel, she writes, "In my family, we all had become salt dancers, inventing our difficult escapes from pain."
12. Hegi writes, "I didn't know then that things you don't talk about -- ghosts and secrets -- feed on silence, that they grow massive and imposing until you divest them of their feast." How does this quote inform the novel? How is it possible that twenty-three years passed, in Julia's case, without mention of ghosts and secrets? How does Julia finally divest her ghosts and secrets of their feast? What is it about human nature which causes us to keep secret those things which are most in need of being brought out into the open?
Posted December 3, 2008
I picked up this book with high expectations. It started off right where it needed to however, the author was unable to sustain her momentum. I found that there was a great deal of jumping around from past to present which made it difficult to put everything neatly on a timeline. I did finish the book, but the author never redeemed herself. I hear great things about her other book- Stones from a River. I plan on giving her another chance and hope that I will come away with a better opinion .Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 10, 2000
I LOVE this book! The title is explained in the first few pages, in a touching recollection from childhood that proves to be the theme of the book...how do we leave behind the parts of our past that no longer serve us? The writing is sensitive without being saccharine, profound in its quiet assertion of truth and courage. Ursula Hegi knows how to write characters with character, and it's easy to welcome them, to learn from them -- even when the going gets tough. I can't say too much without revealing the story...but I can't say enough about the quality of the writing, the pleasure of reading it, or the resonance of the experience. Buy it, read it, share it, treasure it!!!
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 30, 2012
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