In Salt, a skillfully crafted, beautifully written first novel, prize-winning poet, short story writer and former Durham resident Isabel Zuber has brought to life the world of the Appalachian Mountains over a century ago. Faithful to language and customs of the period and area, Zuber invests Salt with a strong sense of time and place. With telling detail, she individualizes a wide range of characters, creating a whole community.
Most important among these characters is Anna Maud Stockton Bayley, whose life Zuber depicts from childhood to her death at 40--her physical life as a mountain woman following the patterns and customs of the turn of the century, but also Anna's rich inner life.
For all of her skills in depicting time, place and character, at her best Zuber is an extraordinary storyteller, and Salt as a book is a celebration of the art of storytelling itself--both in the broader rendering of Anna's life and in the little "stories" that run throughout the book. In these little stories, Zuber realizes the authenticity of the mountain setting and mountain life at the turn of the 20th century, through mountain riddles, tall tales, metaphors that carry within them stories, mysterious fantasies of the Fox Woman, charms, and the "anthology" of stories that are in a "memory quilt."
But it is Anna's life from childhood to youth, to her years as a wife and mother in a mountain community and her early buoyant hopes and eagerness, her yearning for books, music, and travel, that particularly capture the reader.
A "determined fearless child" who loves to wander and longs to explore "the back of beyond," she exults in running through mountain grass, declaring, "I have never felt so happy. I am seven years old, and I will remember this always for I may never have such happiness again." Indeed, she may never.
As she is growing up, Anna goes to a larger nearby town to work as a serving girl in the home of one of her mother's schoolmates. Each evening when the master of the house reads to everyone, she responds to "the feeling and intensity of the reading." She loves being read to, "to strive, to seek, and not to yield."
Increasingly, the "force of passion fascinated and frightened her." She declines a proposal from the son of the household because she doesn't think his mother would approve of her, and she doubts the love of either for the other. Earlier, a member of the household predicted to Anna, "It's very likely you'll end up doing something foolish, like marrying the wrong man for what you think is love."
Anna returns to her home where the twice-widowed John Bayley sets his eye on her, courts and seduces her even as she tells him, "I'm not sure I want to be married. There are things I want to know about--to read books, to hear an orchestra. I want to wait." And for all her dreams, Bayley traps Anna with her passion. When she realizes she's pregnant, John and Anna marry, and she becomes a mother four times. She continues to have her dreams as John pursues farming, more land, and other women. Meanwhile, Anna masters all the mountain domestic skills, but continues to long for romance as well.
She does find romance, and for a brief time her "spirit thrills," but ultimately she feels she has to walk away from it. "Why is it that I have stood between myself and things I want?" she asks herself, summing up the bold outlines of the life she has had, versus the one she longed for.
Later, dying tragically and painfully at 40, Zuber writes that to Anna it seemed "that everything that was ever going to happen had already happened and she was seeing shadows of what had passed." Zuber eloquently evokes those shadows, just as she does the shadows on the mountains and the slants of light that play upon them. Salt is both a celebration of the Appalachian Mountains and way of life, and a lamentation for its loss--a celebration that is also an elegy.