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The Salt Eaters, by Toni Cade Bambara, is set in Georgia in the 1970s, and it tells the story of an African American woman named Velma Henry. Velma is a political activist in her forties who has become depressed and disillusioned with her fight for civil rights and her constant battle against oppression. After a failed suicide attempt, she goes to the Southwest Community Infirmary to heal, and despite the fact that she is in a traditional medical environment, she experiences a spiritual healing with the aid of a woman named Minnie Ransom and her spirit guide, Old Wife. Though multiple subplots run through the novel, the main plot revolves around Velma’s healing process, which enables her to let go of her fear and rage. With Minnie’s guidance, Velma recounts memories of the past and recovers folk wisdom that helps her embrace her African American self and get back a part of her that was devalued in the face of oppression.

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Summary

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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 that she chooses to withdraw from reality rather than face its oppressive stasis.

While Velma struggles to regain her sanity, other citizens fear a different illness. They live in dread of nuclear residue, chemical poisons, and other industrial pollutants that may filter down into their community. In an attempt to stave of disease, some members of the community have taken to eating soil, the salt eaters of the novel’s title. However, the source of Velma’s illness is not hazardous waste; she has been poisoned by social maladies: Racial prejudice and sexual oppression have infected her body with abuse so severe that her mind cannot filter the toxins.

Events occur in the fictional southern town of Claybourne, a predominantly black community where tensions exist between the genders. Women are the workhorses in a community center where the men receive all of the political power and most of the acclaim. It is this dual oppression (beaten down as a woman and denied opportunity as a person of color) that contributes to Velma’s malady. Even as Minnie conducts her healing, a male doctor supervises from the margins, often interrupting her art with his belittling asides. In the end, however, the women triumph. Having successfully processed memories of events that led to her suicide attempt, the broken woman wills herself back to life under the encouragement of Minnie. Velma rises off her stool, spreads her fingers, and surveys her hands as...

(The entire section contains 1850 words.)

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