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Toni Cade Bambara: The Salt Eaters

While certainly not unknown – it is still in print in the United States – I feel that this work has not had the attention it deserves. This is in part because it is not a particularly easy book to read, with its African-American slang and its impressionistic style, jumping from one character to the next. However, Bambara does what other writers have tried to do and not always succeeded, namely to create in her novel a world, which while clearly not autonomous, operates according to its own rules. Even more importantly, this world she has created operates next to and, indeed, within, the standard US world it is criticising.

The novel is set in Claybourne, Georgia, or, more particularly, the African-American community of Claybourne. Bambara gives us a portrait of the community, its inhabitants or, more appositely, its characters, its problems and concerns and how they, like any other community struggle with a host of issues. She does this using both a feminist and African-American sensibility, not just describing African-Americans and African-American women but by using their ways of behaving, their religious background, their political methods and, most importantly, their ways of healing. The nominal story concerns Velma Henry who, at the beginning of the novel has apparently attempted suicide. A group of women, led by healer Minnie Ransom is now trying to help Velma deal with the issues that made her attempt to kill herself not by discussing them (though there is a bit of that) but mainly by laying hands on her and trying to infuse her with a healing power. Minnie is the leader and she has done this many times. She does not know why she can do it. She just knows that she can. The women and how they help Velma pop up now and again through the novel but most of it is concerned with the community Velma is part of.

One thing I noticed is that we see the women through their conversations and relations with others. However, several of the men – Fred Holt, the bus driver, Doc Serge, former pimp, gambler, hustler and now head of the community health centre, Dr. Meadows, a black doctor who is afraid of black people and Campbell, the waiter-cum-community journalist – are more described through their stories. Fred, for example, is introduced when he is driving the bus to Claybourne, carrying an assortment of passengers – a young white kid with snakes in a basket, some white religious people and some white drunks. Bambara mixes in his thoughts and feelings (and concerns) about his passengers while we learn a bit about his life, how his wife and son have left him and he has no idea where they are, how his best friend, Porter, was his support and help in the bus company but was stabbed to death by a woman with knitting needles, who got away and was never found and how he is now just struggles along on his own.

The community is an activist community. The women stand up to the men, they fight for the health centre. In particular, they are concerned about the nearby nuclear power plant. Velma seems to have been involved in the activism against the plant (though her suicide attempt is, in part, because of her husband’s philandering). Bambara does not give us any conclusions, either about the power plant or the many other issues she raises, but she does leave us with a fine novel that deserves to be better known.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Random House