cover image Above the Salt

Above the Salt

Katherine Vaz. Flatiron, $29.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-250-87381-1

Vaz (Mariana) draws on the real-life story of Portuguese immigrant and Civil War veteran John Alves for a sprawling yet intimate epic of persecution, reinvention, and romance. After surviving imprisonment for heresy with his Presbyterian mother on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the 1840s, five-year-old John meets Maria Freitas, an adoptee raised by a Catholic gardener sympathetic to the country’s marginalized Protestants. Their brief childhood friendship flares back to life when the two are reacquainted as adults in 1860 Illinois. Maria, now Mary, is reluctantly engaged to a botany professor and trying to find a market for the miracle berry plants she and her father brought to America. John teaches at a school for the Deaf and is working on a machine he hopes will record sound. Under the looming threat of war and faced with religious and social obstacles, John and Mary pursue a love that will reverberate through the rest of their lives. In lyrical prose, Vaz conveys her characters’ curiosity about the world’s beauty (“They hauled blankets out where the stars were like knots on the back of satin that God and all the dead were stitching; what handiwork was on the other side?”) and doles out powerful observations on human nature, such as this description of a businessman trying to hustle Mary: “His paper-thin skin advertised his bones. Men like this resembled their own memento mori, and yet they never saw it.” Readers will be entranced by this ambitious and heartbreaking saga. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Nov.)