(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Salt Eaters chronicles the mental crisis of Velma Henry, a community activist, and efforts to restore her to health. Minnie Ransom is the faith healer who employs nontraditional methods to mend her disturbed client. The treatment takes place in a medical facility where skeptical interns and traditional medical professionals witness the healing as if in attendance at a theatrical performance. Velma, shaky, dirty, vulnerable, and underdressed in a hospital gown, is seated before the aged healer Minnie, who is swaddled in flowing robes and adorned in handcrafted ornaments. Face to face they appear in stark contrast: young and old, naked and clothed, insane and sane. The initial response of their audience to the scene is one of boredom as changes do not occur quickly enough for them to record on their clipboards, but the slow pace of the healing allows Velma, in a series of flashbacks, to review events leading up to her breakdown.

Renowned for its experimental form, the novel avoids a strict chronological approach to narration. Instead it allows portions of random events to appear, some coherent and indicative of Velma’s earlier cogent sensibility, and some verging on the incomprehensible, revelatory of her break with reality. It is a journey through, and a record of, the mental landscape of a woman whose life’s mission is noble (to revive a black community through positive social action) but who faces opposition so brutal and destructive...

(The entire section is 513 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Salt Eaters tells the story of Velma Henry, a bone-weary, despairing black woman whose marriage is on the skids and who has begun to falter seriously as she attempts to juggle a commitment to social activism, a career, and life as a wife and mother. In addition to being the story of Velma, the novel tells a larger story of African Americans in the late twentieth century as they come to grips with themselves, their country, and the world.

The central action of The Salt Eaters occurs in the short space of time it takes for the “fabulous healer,” Minnie Ransom of Claybourne, Georgia, to “bring through” her patient Velma, who that same day has attempted to take her own life. From three o’clock in the afternoon of an early spring day until the novel ambiguously concludes less than a half hour later, the two women sit facing each other on stools in the Southwest Infirmary, a century old black-founded hospital where modern medicine is practiced side by side with traditional healing arts handed down from slave and Indian times.

Velma has slashed her wrists and crawled headfirst into a gas stove. Now, the veteran political worker, civil rights activist, and computer consultant sits quietly in a hospital robe as the ancient crone—abetted by Old Wife, her familiar, her guiding spirit—attempts to unravel the twisted psyche of the younger woman. Both are legends in the black community, Minnie for her supernatural powers and Velma for her organizational ability and aggressive self-confidence, now reduced to depression and confusion.

Those familiar only with her better-known short stories such as “Gorilla, My Love” and “Raymond’s Run” will find Toni Cade Bambara’s first and only novel very different. In its narration and style, the novel is indebted to such earlier authors as James Joyce and William Faulkner. Like Joyce’s...

(The entire section is 774 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Salt Eaters opens with Velma Henry sitting on a stool in the South West Community Infirmary of Claybourne, Georgia, being healed by Minnie Ransom. Claybourne is a beehive of progressive activity. The Academy of the Seven Arts, run by James “Obie” Henry, Velma’s husband, is the center of intellectual and social activities. Velma, performing the duties of seven employees, keeps the institution running. Overwhelmed by the infighting at the academy, her domestic problems with Obie, and her refusal to accept her spiritual powers, Velma has attempted suicide, and Minnie is laboring to “center” Velma, to make Velma whole.

The novel includes a spiritual plane where mortals interact with other life forms. Minnie Ransom operates on both planes. She is sitting opposite Velma while surrounded by her twelve disciples, the Master’s Mind. Sometimes she reaches out and touches Velma physically. Other times she does “not touch [Velma] flesh on flesh, but touch[es] mind on mind from across the room or from across town.” While Minnie is having these telepathic tête-à-têtes with Velma, she also confers at times with a spirit guide who helps her with the healing. When “centering” Velma becomes difficult, Minnie makes telepathic trips to the Chapel of the Mind to recharge her psychic energies.

The healing, which should take minutes, takes two hours—the time span of the novel. Velma, like Minnie, takes telepathic trips, during which she bumps into other characters, human and spiritual. These characters, filtered through Velma’s subconscious, are for the most part what people the novel.

Toni Cade Bambara skillfully combines the European American traditional mode of storytelling with African and African American concepts and traditions. The Academy of the Seven Arts is concerned with empirical knowledge, but the institution is also concerned with teaching folk art and folk traditions. The medical center accommodates physicians who practice modern medicine, but the center also makes use of the skills of Minnie Ransom. The spring celebration is a ritual celebrated by human beings, but in Claybourne the quick and the dead celebrate this rite.

Bambara’s concepts of the new age, guiding spirits, out-of-body experiences, and telepathic visions were not, at first, taken seriously. Reality is not, however, measured only by empirical evidence. Near-death experiences, guardian angels, and intergalactic travel are part of popular understanding. As the concept of reality expands, the significance of The Salt Eaters deepens.