A Taste of Salt
By Hal Wilson
Review by Margot Miller – as featured in Tidewater Times
As Hal Wilson’s A Taste of Salt unfolds, it appears as if the entwined narratives will explore the question posed by Clay Oaks, after the suicide of his sister, Rachel, “Where is the difference between vengeance vs. justice?” But the title is the first clue about where the real theme lies. Angel Dupree tastes a bit of salt to preserve the memory of Rachel Oaks, whose story, as another brother, Bennett, has pointed out to their father, is identical to the biblical tale of Amnon and Tamar. From that taste of salt and Angel’s comment, we are reminded that memory and story, especially of sorrow, are essential to life. They cannot be separated from life or from each other without devastating results.
Memory exists in time, in history and in herstory, and the more we try to hide a terrible memory from ourselves or our children, the more surely it is passed on as an unnamed anxiety, a kind of PTSD that resides in the genes until it is expiated by the family member who goes looking for its explanation.
Explanation, however, is not the end of family trauma. We cannot separate ourselves from the inherited damage we carry into the world in our bones and our blood. The work of life is the process of discovering the memories of our ancestors, memories that inform our own anxieties, our desires and our fears, and it is work that, no matter how hard we try, cannot be completed. There is no life without suffering, although certainly trauma is not required, but these two experiences exist on a continuum of pain. While loss is often healed in time, there is no “closure” for trauma. PTSD is not curable. “Closure” is an illusory contemporary notion born in post-modern, emotion-driven journalism rather than an achievable or even advisable psychological state. Suffering, whether traumatic or mundane, becomes a part of the sufferer; it informs his or her life and, if the work is done at all well, it eases into something possible to live with and through rather than escape from. It enriches the soul and no life without at least a modicum of suffering can possibly be very interesting, let alone meaningful.
There are two story lines in A Taste of Salt, skillfully peeled back a layer at a time by Wilson as he elaborates the mechanisms of memory, loss, trauma, suffering, community, and hope.
Sarah Morgan meets Oarsman in a diner in East Millinocket, Maine in 1967. They are both on road trips, she after the loss of her husband, a paraplegic who fell, or possibly hurled himself, down the stairs, he apparently on summer vacation from the north Georgia college where he teaches. They meet at the Sea Fury Diner where Sara is suddenly taken with the story of Canadian Navy Lt. Mervin “Butch” C Hare, whose plane went down in 1950 in the area north of Millinocket and has never been found. Hare is the one factual part of the novel, but his is a pretext for the story Wilson tells. A text before the present text as well as a vehicle for the telling of the story that brings Sarah and Oarsman together. In the diner are two Tibetan lumberjacks as well, and they will be important. The third main character in this part of the story is Cybil MacFall, who will be Sarah and Oarsman’s guide in the search for Hare and his plane. She has her own issues, and she is no less in peril than is Sarah. And like Sarah, she will recover herself through the work of investing herself in the story and life of another.
The other narrative takes place in the early 19th century in north Georgia. Rachel Oaks, a daughter ill regarded and unprotected since the loss of her mother, is raped by her oldest brother and her father thinks nothing of it. Angel Dupree, an octaroon slave, is her companion in the household but just distant enough to not know how Rachel suffers from humiliation and shame. When Rachel kills herself, Angel collects her clothing and makes a small chest/shrine of them, which will be passed down in the family for generations. In fact, Sarah is the current holder of this covenant, which she little understands.
In Wilson’s novel all of the female characters who live beyond their traumas, Sarah, Angel, and Cybil, return to life, to struggle, to continue their individual work. Sarah recovers from her injury on the hike/search for Hare and his plane, just as she faces her feeling of guilt over the death of her husband. It is at this moment that she recovers the lost story of her ancestors. It is not a coincidence. She is given a reprieve at the River Styx. Angel lives out her life as the madam of a brothel after the loss of her husband, Clay Oaks. She has been a slave, a servant, the victim of sexual abuse, but she has retaliated by killing Captain Oaks and recovered by building for herself the only kind of power available to her: business. She dies in prison, it is true, but unrepentant, save for the loss of her daughter, Rachel, named in memory of Rachel Oaks. Cybil McFall, a veteran nurse, returned from Vietnam, after saving Sarah’s life and her leg, returns to Vietnam to face her demons, the Tiger, the shuddering din of the helicopters, the shocking fear and the reality of death. Wilson’s aim seems to be to give life to his female characters in a way that is not offered to or required for his male characters.
The men in Wilson’s novel fall basically into two categories: the good and the bad… The latter are Captain Oaks and his son, Harley, as well as Dorgon Price, who abets Harley in the rape of his sister, though Price seems to regret it and later tries to assuage his guilt by adopting (stealing) Angel’s daughter and rearing her as his own. The younger Oaks brothers, Bennett and Clay, argue over the vengeance vs. justice question when Bennett kills Harley and lights out for the West, never to be heard from again. Clay understands that in his effort to seal up Rachel’s rape and suicide, Bennett has opened a future that will be unexpected and unwanted. To protect Angel they organize the demise of Captain Oaks and burn the house to the ground two centuries before forensic technology could catch up with them. They head for New Orleans to make the best they can of their lives – or not. If the question of vengeance vs. justice is addressed in the novel, it is in the treatment of the female vs. male characters. The men in the patriarchal world of the 19th century, which has not changed all that much Wilson seems to be saying here, do not deserve the nuanced treatment he gives his female characters, whom he places at the center of the novel. In contemporary fiction, strong female characters are more and more the norm, while male characters are (sometimes) justly relegated to supporting roles. Wilson has plumbed biblical and mythological as well as implicit fairy tale resources to support this sometimes overt, sometimes covert view of human culture.
But the main male character, the one who deserves a central role, is Oarsman, who is obviously Charon of the River Styx incarnated as a gentle guide on Sarah’s journey in search of Hare as well as herself in the dark Maine forest, her unconscious self. It is Oarsman who has the key to Sarah’s ancestral tale because he teaches at Price College and has just heard Rachel Price Braxten out her father for the heel he was and identify Angel Dupree as her mother. Oarsman is able to bring information to Sarah just as she is at the edge of knowing herself, at the moment she is ready to hear these details, and after hearing it, she plummets off the path and into the hands of Cybil. The story brings her, literally, to the precipice and then back to life.
The two Tibetan foresters reappear, as if by magic, just when Oarsman and Cybil need a way to get a medi-vac helicopter for Sarah. The intervention of the Buddhist assistance, signaled by the bells the Tibetans carry, underscores the theme outlined above: sorrow is not an event that ends, thus allowing us to go on once it is over, but a catalyst that changes us, enlightens us, gives us the opportunity to find strength within ourselves – but not alone. Oarsman, Cybil and the Tibetans are all encountered on Sarah’s path on the day she is ready to learn what they have to teach her. She will presumably go forward enriched, as we are meant to as readers of Wilson’s novel.
While the pretext for the novel is the only factual detail, the novel itself is true in every way that fine literary fiction is true. It takes us into ourselves; it refers us to classic story lines we already know, either from our reading or from introspection; it offers us characters we can identify with for ourselves and for our ancestors, allowing us to imagine our own and their narratives in time, the stories that haunt every existence and which are universally disturbing as well as rewarding upon examination. There is no shame in knowing the truth of A Taste of Salt; it is the expression of our common humanity. Unspeakable stories of who we are, if left unshared, are passed on through generations at a cellular level, whether we know it or not, making A Taste of Salt an exceptional and important novel.
Margot Miller has a PhD in French literature and holds an advanced degree in counseling. She has published scholarly articles as well as a number of short stories. Her latest collection of short stories and flash fiction can be found in Blackbird Calling and in Walking Accidently in the Dark. Miller was the Fiction Editor for The Delmarva Review from 2008 to 2013.