Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1951
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Clarissa is Susie's best friend. Her clandestine meeting in the cornfield with her boyfriend, Brian, leads to Brian's attack on Jack.
Ruth, the girl Susie inadvertently brushes against as the she departs earth, is artistic and poetic with a feminist sensibility, existing on the fringes of junior high and high school society. She moves to New York after graduation, living a bohemian life of writing poetry, communing with Susie, and recording in her journal the deaths of women and children, deaths that she sees in dreams and visions. Because of her psychic connection to the spirit of murdered women and children, Ruth provides the means for Susie to revisit earth and consummate her relationship with Ray. Ruth also develops and maintains a strong friendship with Ray.
Detective Len Fenerman
Len Fenerman is the lead detective on Susie's murder case. A small but tenacious man, Fenerman believes that he will find Susie's killer. He understands the horror of unexplained death, as his wife committed suicide. Fenerman carries Susie's picture, as well as the pictures of victims of unsolved murder cases, in his wallet. Although he knows that he should not give in to his feelings for Abigail, he eventually begins an affair with her. Because of his cautiousness regarding Harvey, Susie's killer, Fenerman fails to arrest him. This failure haunts the detective, and he must bear the guilt of his decisions.
Franny, a social worker on earth, is Susie's intake counselor in heaven. She also serves as a surrogate mother.
George Harvey, a thirty-six-year-old single man, is a serial killer who rapes and murders Susie. Although considered odd by his neighbors, Harvey does not draw attention to himself. He builds dollhouses and possesses a fascination with buildings. Taught to steal by his mother and then abandoned by her, and raised by a tyrannical father, Harvey lacks both a conscience and social skills. He fits the profile of a sociopath, reliving the murders in his mind, deriving intense pleasure from the killings, and taking trophies from his victims. When Lindsey breaks into his house and takes evidence linking him to Susie's murder, Mr. Harvey's ordered world begins to disintegrate. He leaves town, eventually coming back determined to kill Lindsey, but a combination of circumstances prevent him from doing so.
Hal is Samuel's older brother. He rides and repairs motorcycles. After Harvey's disappearance, Hal uses his network of biker friends to search for him. Hal eventually passes on some key information to Detective Fenerman.
Samuel is Lindsey's childhood sweetheart and eventually marries her. Samuel helps Lindsey cope with her sister's death, her mother's abandonment, and her father's heart attack. Samuel, along with his brother, Hal, becomes an integral part of the Salmon family. He and Hal treat Buckley, Lindsey's little brother, like their own brother. Samuel loves carpentry and restoring old houses, a passion that he turns into a career. This passion for fixing broken and battered things parallels his ability to alleviate Lindsey's pain, name Jack's overprotectiveness, and deflect Buckley's anger.
Holly is Susie's roommate in heaven. Although she and Susie share much of their heaven, Holly also has a heaven to which Susie has no access. Holly helps Susie understand heaven.
Grandma Lynn, Susie's grandmother and Abigail's mother, is eccentric, colorful and drinks too much. Prior to Susie's murder, her visits to the Salmon's upended routines and delighted her grandchildren. Not overly motherly, Lynn has a strained relationship with her daughter. When Abigail leaves, Lynn provides the stability that keeps the family together. She helps Lindsey grow into womanhood, and she helps Buckley negotiate his anger and hurt.
Brian is Clarissa's boyfriend. He beats Mr. Salmon with a baseball bat when he mistakenly thinks that Susie's father is attacking Clarissa in the cornfield.
Abigail is Susie's mother. She is college educated, with a master's degree in literature and aspirations to teach. In the early years of her marriage to Jack, Abigail possessed a passionate nature but found that the demands of motherhood pulled her away from her husband and from her own dreams. As her family grew, Abigail became less involved with her children and husband. Nevertheless, Susie's death unsettles her, and she finds no outlet for her grief. She embarks on an affair with Detective Fenerman but does not love him. Her need to find herself, reclaim her place in the world as an individual, and escape her intense grief propel her to relocate to California. There she seems to find some solace, working in a vineyard and leaving motherhood and wifehood behind. However, she comes to realize that she can leave neither of those things, and when she returns to Pennsylvania, she also realizes that she viewed Susie's death as punishment for own failings as a mother. This understanding allows her to rebuild her relationship with her husband and with her children. These things do not prove easy, but Abigail does reclaim her position within the family, albeit a changed family—reconfigured by Susie's absence as well as by Abigail's.
Buckley is the youngest of the three Salmon children. He is four years old at the time of Susie's murder and seven years old when his mother leaves. These two events force Buckley to develop emotional defenses in order to survive the pain of abandonment. He believes that he has supernatural encounters with Susie. Both Grandma Lynn and Lindsey act as maternal surrogates, and Buckley develops a close relationship with his father. As he matures, he becomes protective of his father and of Lindsey. When Abigail returns, Buckley is hateful, sullen, and very angry.
Jack is Susie's father. In the aftermath of her murder, Jack deals not only with his own grief and anger but also seeks to assuage Lindsey's emotions and protect Buckley from the hurt. Like Abigail, Jack must also work through some guilt generated by his daughter's death. He questions his position as father and protector when he realizes that he was not there to save his little girl. His frustration at this failure fuels his need to be active in the police investigation. Jack cannot remain passive as the police fail to develop leads. He never wavers in his conviction that Mr. Harvey murdered Susie, and once the police disregard his theories, Jack turns to Lindsey, sharing his thoughts with her. Despite his closeness to Lindsey and Buckley, Jack retains a strong connection to Susie, feeling her presence, talking to her, refusing to let her place in his family's life fade. Whereas Abigail withdraws into almost a state of indifference, Jack builds ties that may bind too tightly. Finally, Jack understands that in order to have a strong family, he must loosen the bonds, and he does what the living must do in order to go on living—let go of the dead. In addition, Jack does what parents must do: let go of their children. Jack can make these moves only after he turns inward and faces his own fears and weaknesses.
Lindsey is the middle child of the three Salmon children. Bright, articulate, athletic, blonde, and pretty, Lindsey, one year younger than Susie, is amazingly close to her sister, so Susie's death leaves a deep void in Lindsey's life. However, she refuses to be the dead girl's sister, the living daughter, the reminder of the missing girl. Lindsey struggles through the ordinary traumas of adolescence, but Susie's murder, Abigail's distance, Jack's need to find the killer, and Buckley's dependence all complicate the process for her. With Grandma Lynn's help, Samuel's devotion, and her own determination, Lindsey develops into a strong young woman, and she risks her own safety in order to find proof of Harvey's guilt. Lindsey does not, however, betray her dreams. Unlike her mother, she follows her aspirations. She graduates from college, gets an advanced degree, and takes up a career. Although Lindsey never leaves Susie behind, she does move beyond Susie's death.
Susie, the narrator, is a fourteen-year-old girl and the eldest of the three Salmon children. She is raped and murdered by her neighbor, Mr. Harvey, as she walks home from junior high. Susie is spunky and curious, a dreamer with a desire to be a wildlife photographer, and looks forward to high school and to growing up. Susie shares a special relationship with her father—helping him to build ships in a bottle. She and sister Lindsey are close, and she plays mother hen to little brother Buckley. Susie adores her mother and seems to understand her mother's need for privacy.
Seldom is Susie a direct participant in the action; usually, she observes and reflects. Sometimes, however, she makes her presence known to the living—in the shards of glass from her father's broken ships in a bottle, in a dim appearance at a family gathering, in the body of Ruth Connors. She is with Lindsey as she searches Mr. Harvey's house, leading her sister into the upstairs rooms. In addition, much of the action takes place because of someone's longing for, search for, or love for Susie. So, indirectly, Susie influences individual decisions and outcomes.
Just as Lindsey must figure out how to grow up—what it means to live, Susie must figure out what it means not to grow up—what it means to be dead. She learns that like the living, she, too, must journey. Susie also learns that the dead, like the living, must let go, not easy for a girl who wants so desperately to live.
Susie does return to earth. She falls into Ruth's body, initiated partly by Susie's longing to kiss Ray one more time and see where that kiss would lead, and also by Ruth's desire to understand the dead, to see them. Ruth desires to leave earth, and Susie desires to return. After this incident, Susie watches with love and pleasure as her family reconfigures into a new family, one that does and does not include her.
Ray is the boy with whom Susie shares her first kiss. Born in India and raised in England until his family moved to the United States, Ray is dark skinned and well-spoken. He writes Susie a love letter that she never gets to read. This letter, which the police find in the cornfield, initially leads them to suspect Ray of the murder. Like Ruth, Ray inhabits the periphery of junior high society. He finds himself drawn to Ruth's quirkiness, her love of art and literature, and her connection to Susie. Together, Ray and Ruth speculate about Susie's murder. Ray maintains a close relationship with Ruth throughout high school as well as after graduation, when he goes to Penn State and Ruth to New York. Susie longs for Ray as she watches him from heaven. When she returns to earth in Ruth's body, Ray recognizes the change in Ruth, calling her Susie. He makes love to her, and he asks her to tell him about heaven. This encounter affects Ray when he begins to practice medicine; he refuses to consider only medical or scientific explanations regarding death.
Ruana is Ray's mother. She is an exotic personality, dignified and calm when the police question her son about Susie's murder. Ruana possesses deep empathy for the Salmons, and she plays an important role in Jack's determination to avenge Susie's death. Ruana listens to his theories regarding Mr. Harvey and legitimizes Jack's desire for revenge. Before Abigail leaves, the two women share a moment together, and Ruana understands Abigail's feeling of isolation. After Abigail leaves, Ruana often bakes apple pies for the Salmons, which she has Ray deliver.