cover image Salt Dancers

Salt Dancers

Ursula Hegi. Simon & Schuster, $21.5 (235pp) ISBN 978-0-684-80209-1

Readers of Floating in My Mother's Palm and Stones from the River, Hegi's impressive sagas of life in a fictional German village, are acquainted with her storytelling skill, her sinewy yet lyrical prose and her strong moral imagination. In comparison with those page-hefty books, this is a slim volume, but it lacks none of the psychological insights and emotional impact of the earlier novels. For almost a decade of Julia Ives's life in Spokane, Wash., her father was a protective, nurturing presence. He taught her the salt dance, a ritual to help her leave everything she feared behind a line of salt, and he gave her the ``trouble people,'' dolls that can solve your troubles while you sleep. Ironically, these have become metaphors for the emotional safety Julia lost one day when she was nine and her brother Travis a year younger, when her mother left them all without a word and vanished from their lives. Stunned and aching with loneliness, Julia then had to endure her father's frequent drunken assaults; he beat her, demanding that she declare her love for him. College was Julia's passport out of Spokane. Now, 24 years later, pregnant but unmarried at 41, she comes from her home in Vermont to confront her father with her memories, to see her brother, who also bears emotional scars from their childhood, and to try to fathom the mystery of her mother's disappearance. Hegi uses Julia's quest to explore the selective power of memory and the ambiguities that cloud family relationships. She evokes the varied landscape of Washington and the emotional landscape of Julia's memories with equal facility, though she sometimes overindulges in Julia's fantasies of finding her mother. Yet, there is both poignancy and suspense in Julia's journey through her past, and the surprises she encounters in herself as well as others lead to a healing resolution that has the open-ended feel of real life. (Aug.)