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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 163

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...

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774

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 Ulysses (1922), The Salt Eaters is concerned with the events of a single day; like that novel and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), Bambara’s book makes use of stream-of-consciousness narration, jumps in place and time, and free associations. Because the narration plunges backward and forward in time, jumps about in the presentation of events, and frequently alternates perspectives, even the persistent reader may often encounter difficulties.

Velma occupies a central position inside the hospital; she is perched uneasily on a stool undergoing therapy and surrounded by a local prayer group of twelve elderly people known as The Master’s Mind and by a number of curious hospital personnel. From there, the untraditional plot radiates out into the street, the surrounding neighborhood, and often to a bus approaching the city limits of Claybourne carrying among its passengers an interracial group of women led by Velma’s sister. While Velma is being treated by Minnie, numerous people wander in, out of, and by the infirmary. Julius Meadows, a light-skinned physician, steals out of the room to walk the streets. Fred Holt, who has parked his bus, peers in at the curious ritual going on inside. Velma herself has a restless mind that leads her back to her childhood, to her husband Obie, and to her current lover Jamahl, a self-styled guru whom she cruelly but accurately dismisses as just “a jive nigger.”

Little by little, the reader comes to see that the Black Power movement of earlier years has become a fragmented host of antagonistic parties, each making its impetuous demands on Velma. Her activities have taken a grievous toll on her marriage, so that she comes to reflect within herself the shattered state of her people, radicalized into factions that defy reconciliation.

Outside the hospital, the divided black community is preparing to celebrate a rite of spring, an ambiguous Mardi Gras-like festival that appears both boisterously merry and ominous. Though a carnival atmosphere exists in the streets, it is constantly undercut by allusions to the “Hoo Doo Man,” by disconcerting encounters with transvestites, and by the recurring reminder that weapons stolen from an armory may be stashed at the Academy of the Seven Arts, Obie’s community self-help center. The center, which conducts adult-education classes and has a well-equipped gym, is sponsoring a midnight parade that could easily turn into an armed uprising.

The academy, like the festival and like the strange storm that suddenly sweeps the streets with wind and rain, resists an entirely satisfactory interpretation. The outcome of Velma’s treatment as the book comes to a close suggests that the first stage of healing has been reached, however, and that auspicious sign may well comment equally on the hope for the values of the community now in disarray.

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