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Written by Jody Perry
Salamanca Tree Hiddle (Sal)
Sal is a thirteen year old girl who is the narrator and the protagonist of the novel. Her full name is Salamanca Tree Hiddle; her parents believed her great-great-grandmother had been a member of the Salamanca Indian tribe, and although they later discovered the tribe in question was actually the Seneca Indians, they had already named their daughter. Sal's middle name comes from her mother's love of trees. She had wanted to be more specific about the type of tree but this would have blessed Sal with the rather unwieldy name of Salamanca Sugar Maple Tree Hiddle - so "Tree" sufficed. When boys want to annoy Sal they call her "Salamander".
Sal is a country girl who loves every aspect of growing up on the family farm in Kentucky. She especially loves the fact her parents built the house they live in, and the fact that every day she can be with trees and wild flowers, chickens and cows. She adores the wide-open spaces and the smell of having a happy childhood. She would be considered a hippie nowadays because of her tendency to listen to birdsong and hug trees. Sal hates their new city home and feels claustrophobic there, missing wide open spaces.
Sal misses her mother enormously and all she wants is for her family to be back together again. Her heart has been aching since her mother went away and now she is almost used to it. She loves her father very much and wishes he would stop trying to insert Margaret Cadaver into her life as well as into his. She is like her mother to look at and tries to reinforce their bond by filling her room with the visual reminders of moments they shared.
Sal is well-liked although considered a little weird, initially for her long, black hair that hangs past her waist, and subsequently because she admits to kissing trees in the journal that is read aloud to the English class. She is a good friend and supportive of Phoebe even when Phoebe is being overly-dramatic or extremely demanding. Sal is basically a nice girl who will put up with a lot from her friends. Just entering her teen years, she is both confused and excited by her feelings for Ben, which seem to her to come from nowhere and make no sense. Sal is at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood and for the most part seems to be negotiating the transition well.
She enjoys her grandparents' company and is astute enough to realize that she is the most sensible one of the three of them. Initially frustrated by the length and time of their road trip she later comes to realize that they gave her the most amazing gift by taking her on it- an additional layer of closeness with her mother as they are flowing the same route and seeing the same sights that she saw when she left. Sal is wise for her years but unfortunately the wisdom comes from sadness.
Phoebe is Sal's new best friend. Although they seem very different in character they are similar in that they both experience their mothers leaving them and are both trying hard to find a way of dealing with that. Phoebe is highly over-dramatic and always sees the worst case scenario; if a family member is running late home from work she would assume them to have been killed in a car accident rather than caught up in traffic. She is frightened of strangers and so believes that her mother has been kidnapped by the potential lunatic she has seen around her house lately. She also cannot bear to believe that her mother would leave her deliberately and so creates a scenario in which her mother was forced to leave as a mechanism to protect herself.
Phoebe's family are proper and uptight and these traits have rubbed off on Phoebe. She also believes in telling people the best way to do anything and consequently does not go over well in all situations. She finds so many things wrong with the nutritional content of the meals served at Mary Lou's house that she ends up eating a bowl if dry muesli for dinner instead of the food served to everyone else.
Gramps and Gram
Gramps and Gram are Sal's grandparents on her mother's side. They are spontaneous, carefree and tremendously fun. They are pretending to stop at the spots that they want to see on their road trip whilst actually stopping at all of the places Sal's mother visited on her way to Idaho, giving Sal the unique gift of enhanced closeness with her mom. Gram and Gramps are madly in love although they like to tease ease other about dalliances, Gramps with his wife's friend Gloria and Gram with the egg delivery man. Gramps always declares every bed "not my marriage bed...but it will do". They are dependent on each other and don't care who knows it. Both Gram and Gramps are impractical and given to wild flights of fancy which makes the road trip eventful and memorable.
Sal's father is one of those people who are naturally kind to others. He always knows the right thing to do or say and is instinctively able to give little gifts or do nice little things that show he was thinking about you. Sometimes his niceness can be overwhelming. He loves his family and they are his priority. He loves his wife so much that when she is gone their home causes him too much pain as she is everywhere he looks and he cannot stand living with her memory but without her. He is a man who likes life's simple pleasures and who loves working with his hands, so his new office job feels constricting to him with its buttoned-up suit and its cubicle of an office.
He is not a man who expresses his feelings well instead working things out with manual labor and physical exertion.
Descended from Native Americans, Sal's mother hates the yet Native American and considers herself an American Indian. She is a loving and kind person who feels as though she can never be good enough because her niceness is always outdone by her husband's. she seems to be searching for her identity and feels trapped in not knowing who she really is yet. She deeply loves her husband and daughter but seems to feel that in being wife and mother to them she has lost her sense of what she is to herself. She goes by the name Sugar but longs for people to use her full name Chanhassen. She loves nature and feels a connection to Mother Earth which she has definitely passed down to her daughter.
Despite feeling unimportant in her family's life Phoebe's mother is actually central to the plot of the novel as it is her disappearance that brings Phoebe and Sal closer together. She is a stay at home mom who feels that everything that made ht a person in her own right has dwindled and that she is taken for granted by her family. She is focused on being proper and respectable which is why she kept the existence of her son a secret for so long. She seems poised to rediscover the person she was before cooking, cleaning and ironing took over her life and is discovering a courage she was not aware she had.
Margaret has formed a strong bond with Sal's dad which makes Sal hate her immediately. She tries a little too hard to convince Sal to like her. She can come across as slightly spooky but this is likely because of the extreme experiences in her life; she was a nurse who saw her mother and husband brought in to the emergency room after a drunk driver had caused an accident that ultimately killed her husband and left her mother blind. She was also the sole survivor of a bus crash in Idaho that killed Sal's mother.
Me Birkway is actually Margaret Cadaver's twin brother. He causes great friction at school as in his English class he decides to read aloud private journals written by his students as a summer project and does not change the names well enough to conceal the identity of the authors. A good man he later apologizes for this act.
Ben is at school with Sal and lives with her friend Mary Loy who is his cousin; Ben's own mother is an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital. He is rather taken with Sal and tries to kiss her several times before she realizes that she wants to reciprocate. He is a fun, smart and kindly young man who keeps his personal business shielded from his friends.
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