Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Claybourne, Georgia, is located between the healing salt marshes and a threatening nuclear power plant. Balancing these two extremes is the healing of Velma Henry, a worker in the plant and a central figure in the community. After trying too hard to balance the world on her own shoulders, Velma attempted suicide.

The plot and present of the novel lasts only the time it takes for Minnie Ransom to initiate Velma’s self-healing, but time and space expand concentrically as the fable of Claybourne revises and updates that of the Garden of Eden. This fable reminds the reader that Adam’s name means “clay” and that clay is a marriage of earth and water. Even the salt water of tears can hold human “dust” together to provide clay for the “Potter’s wheel,” the unifying symbol of the novel.

Claybourne itself is the potter’s wheel that remolds and recenters individual lives, a united African American community dissolving differences in the shared grief and hopes of its “salt of the earth” members. Community centers unite the otherwise divided efforts of its citizens in healing confrontations that reveal their essential fellowship. The Infirmary offers both modern medicine and spiritual healing. While the larger society favors practical sciences, The Academy of the Seven Arts teaches only arts—performance, martial, medical, scientific, spiritual, fine, and human— reminding people that learning is the art of living. It is attended...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

The Salt Eaters Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bambara’s own history as an activist is reflected in the gender inequalities and political activism shown in Claybourne’s citizens. Her “ecofeminist” consciousness is equally apparent in the juxtaposition of the nuclear power plant and a projected dystopian future of radioactive mutants. Yet she has chosen to write a fable of hope rather than one of fear.

In order to accomplish this, Bambara writes from the perspective of the Mothers, from the African Mud Mothers to the Mother Earth ceremony celebrated in Claybourne’s Spring Festival. Introducing ancient goddess values into a contemporary setting is part of the feminist revisionist tradition, which challenges Western patriarchal and rational definitions of reality. Goddess definitions return people to nature and the human comedy of rebirth and resurrection rather than the human tragedy of individual responsibility and death. The comic mode is communal; everyone is part of a community that is responsible for its members. People survive by healing one another and by tending the garden given them by nature.

People perform tasks by using their minds, but associative thinking proves to be more useful than rational counting of things. While people may recount their trials, this telling is only part of the tale. When people make connections, they better understand the past and the present; they can draw on one another and the world around them for the energy and knowledge they need.

The whole story is simple; it is also true and beautiful and maybe even humorous. One can recognize its different faces if it has managed to survive “detractors and perverters”; if it has been buried among the “ancients,” then one may have to dig it out. One cannot go home to one’s mother’s village, as still can happen in Africa, but one can go home to one’s mother’s stories. Because they know their children need them, mothers are telling those stories, hoping to bring their children back to the safe circles before they spin out of control, reminding them that the road can curve back to the supporting community. Bambara is such a talespinner, and the spiraling circles of this novel carry her readers far enough back to recapture the hope of beginnings that promise to carry them forward from this, the “Last Quarter,” into a future that is simultaneously diverse and unified because it is centered and yet open to change.

The Salt Eaters Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bambara, Toni Cade. “Toni Cade Bambara.” Interview by Claudia Tate. In Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum, 1983. This lengthy, excellent interview elicits Bambara’s thoughts on influences on her work and life, on the difficulties an activist finds in making time to write a novel, and on the belief that “we and everything here are extensions of the same consciousness.”

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. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Discusses Bambara’s short stories and The Salt Eaters in terms of the inadequacy of language to impel to action. Velma’s spiritual rebirth represents the “beginning of an apocalypse that recognizes that she, just as we, are the light, and the salvation, and the salt which . . . has always seasoned the earth.”

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Detailed study of the fiction of the three most important African American female writers of the late twentieth century, with analysis of Bambara’s best stories, such as “My Man...

(The entire section is 545 words.)