Helen Frost. Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. New York: Square Fish, 2013
Rating: 5 out of 5 empty rabbit snares
Recommended if you like: visual poetry, balanced portrayals of complex conflicts, stories with hopeful endings.
It is the summer of 1812, and twelve-year-olds Anikwa (a member of the Miami Indian community) and James (the son of a new American trader) would be happy to spend the warm days skipping stones and playing lacrosse, tracking fox dens and carving willow whistles, sharing licorice candy and maple sugar and teaching each other new words.
But the people around them are talking of sieges and treaties and enemies and winter. James’ fort-dwelling neighbors encourage his family to mistrust their Miami neighbors. A visitor from the Ottawa people encourages Anikwa’s family to choose sides against the Americans. Even the children’s smaller-scale battles start to feel like precursors to war.
How will Anikwa and James stay friends when there’s so much fear and misunderstanding around them?
The story is told in alternating poems spoken by Anikwa and James — plus several omniscient interludes about the journey of salt from the sea to the land to the people of Kekionga/Fort Wayne.
James and Anikwa speak in visual prose-poems, or shape poems. Anikwa’s are shaped like the diamond and triangle patterns of Miami ribbon work, while James’ are shaped like the stripes on the American flag.† I also see Anikwa’s poems as a river (three rivers flow through the Fort Wayne area), and James’ poems as the the fort.
The boys speak in simple, matter-of-fact statements or questions or observations. Everything happens moment-by-moment, in the present tense (I repeat! This book is written in first-person-present-tense and I’m totally ok with that!). Because, for these two boys, the War of 1812 is not centuries-old history; they’re experiencing everything for the first time, in the Now.
On the other hand, the interlude poems about the evolution of salt put the events of 1812 into perspective. The earth is much older, much greater than this moment in human history. And humanity as a whole is stronger than this one conflict. We will survive this.
James and Anikwa are very relatable pre-teen characters who tease each other, get into misunderstandings, but generally respect each other. They’re also at the age when they start evaluating the mixed messages they receive from adults — even those adults they respect.
And these thoughts are worded in a way that feels natural, not messagey (that was another of Frost’s tips for fellow writers: focus on telling a story more than on teaching a lesson). Even the antagonistic characters, like eleven-year-old Isaac, feel like three-dimensional humans rather than straw bullies. When Isaac throws rocks at frogs or tramples drying cattails or knocks down hornets’ nests, he’s doing it because he thinks that’s the way to have fun, not because he actually wants someone to suffer. He’s misguided, not malicious.
Even better — the adults are portrayed as human beings, too. Frost stays away from the trap/trope of building up her child protagonists by dumbing down or demonizing the grown-ups. The adults whom James and Anikwa meet on a daily basis are portrayed as complicated human beings with good intentions. Again — even when they make mistakes or do unethical things, they act out of fear or confusion or misunderstanding rather than malice.
As for the distant adults who are mentioned in group form — the British army, the American government, the other Midwestern Native American nations who gather to help the Miami — the story makes no definitive value judgments. James and Anikwa do have their own opinions about how these groups’ decisions affect them personally, but there’s no sense that one side is Ultimately Bad and the other Ultimately Good.
In my view, Salt shows a very balanced perspective on a complicated human conflict. The characters are realistic and relatable, and the overall message is hopeful. The book may not be #ownvoices, but it’s very well researched and respectful to all the characters and cultures it portrays.
P.S. I definitely recommend reading the Introduction, Acknowledgements, and Bonus Materials at the end.
† Helen Frost. “Notes.” Salt. Pg. 133.