Re-Read: Salt by Maurice Gee

SaltFrom GoodReads: When his father Tarl is captured and enslaved to work in Deep Salt, Hari vows to rescue him. This is a forbidding task: no one returns from Deep Salt. But Hari was born and raised in Blood Burrow. He’s tough and smart–and he has a secret gift: he can communicate with animals.

The beautiful Pearl, born into the privileged world of the ruling class known as Company, has learned forbidden things from her mysteriously gifted maid Tealeaf. Now her father has promised her in marriage to the powerful and ambitious Ottmar. But Pearl will never submit to a subordinate life, so she and Tealeaf must flee.

When their paths cross, Hari and Pearl realize that together they must discover the secrets of Deep Salt. Their long journey through the badlands becomes far more than a quest to save Tarl–their world is on the brink of unspeakable terror.

I read this book probably five years ago, maybe more, and absolutely loved it then. But I think I loved it even more re-reading it. Salt has it all. Incredible story telling, good writing, amazing characters, fantastic world building, and it subtly tackles some interesting issues like colonialism, racism, poverty, privilege, environmentalism, and coming of age.

*Spoilers ahead.*

I’m not sure how Gee manages to do this, but Salt is both character and plot driven. The story is incredibly exciting and full of action and suspense. However you are also let in on the history of Hari and Pearl and then see them grow immensely as their stories intertwine. I especially liked that not only does it take time for them to shed their old, terrible lives, they don’t do it completely by the end of the story. They retain vestiges of those lives that may never completely leave. Hari often hears the call of violence and hatred while Pearl often feels the pull of privilege that came with wealth. By the end though the two have heard a higher call and they strive to follow that instinct instead of their old ones.

The world is, I believe, based on the colonialism of Australia and the marginalization and impoverishment of the Yolnu. There might also be shades of New Zealand and the marginalization and impoverishment of the Maori. I don’t think you need much if any understanding of what happened in those places, but it’s a place and situation you don’t hear much about in traditional American education which I think makes it all the more interesting. Thankfully there is a map at the beginning of the book to help those of us who have a hard time picturing the lay of the land. Descriptions are spare, but detailed enough to create a clear picture in your mind what the world looks like. And the descriptions of the Burrows, the slums, and the life in them are very vivid. Be forewarned, this is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of violence in those places.

In my second reading the relationship between Tarl and Hari really stuck out to me. When Tarl is taken to work in the Deep Salt mine Hari vows to save him and this puts Hari’s storyline into motion. Hari spends some time, both before leaving the city on his journey and while on his way to Deep Salt, reflecting back on his early memories of growing up as Tarl’s son. The two were close and Tarl was surprisingly tender with Hari. However as the two have very different experiences through the book, Tarl in the mine and Hari on his travels, they diverge. Once reunited Hari discovers the bond between them is no longer founded on shared experiences but on the relationship they shared in the past. The bond is still strong and certainly important, but the two have changed and they meet on different footing. Interestingly, Tarl appears to lament the new distance between them as much as Hari does, but he also understands that Hari is getting a chance at a much better life than Tarl has had or expects to ever get and this is something he very much wants for Hari. Their relationship and its changes, I think, will really resonate with teens who are separating from their parents and becoming more independent, but also feel that longing for the simpler time of childhood.

I won’t get into all the themes I listed above here, but know there is a lot to this story. There are also two more books in the series. They could in theory all be read as stand alone novels and they are all good. I liked this one best of all, but I think that was because I read it first and loved it so much. The next book, Gool, follows the children of Hari and Pearl in their quest to rid their world of the evil that still lingers. That one is interesting to see how Pearl and Hari have grown and how they have passed their legacy on to the next generation and tried to build a new world for their children. The third book, The Limping Man, follows another character entirely in the next generation after Gool. I would say give this to kids who like dystopian fantasies, and that is probably a good recommendation, however I read the Hunger Games after this series and Hunger Games pales in comparison. This is so much better and I’m not sure kids who loved Hunger Games style dystopia will connect in the same way with this one.