The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker (Grand Central Publishing; 372 pages; $24.99).
Throughout history, salt has been an important commodity. Some argue it can be included as a contributing factor in the development of civilization. Salt preserved food and was a highly sought-after trade item. The Romans even built roads to make transportation of salt easier. We cannot then overemphasize its role in our society.
When salt gets in a wound, it stings. Yet, interestingly, mineral bath salts can help ease sore muscles and a variety of skin conditions. Salt can hurt and it can heal.
Jo and Claire Gilly, the two main characters in Tiffany Baker’s second novel The Gilly Salt Sisters, know this all too well. Jo and Claire are sisters, and their family owns a salt farm on the Cape Cod village of Prospect. Every December’s Eve, one of the sisters throws a packet of their salt into a bonfire. The color of the fire tells the town’s future for the upcoming year. “If the fire flashed blue, it meant the town would prosper in the coming year. If it flared yellow, some kind of change was on the horizon, and a puff of black was too terrible to contemplate.”
Not surprisingly, many townspeople think the sisters are witches. They are not. Neither Jo nor Claire are psychic, they do not cast spells. They do not tell the future, rather the salt does. Both are complicated, complex women with both polish and grit.
The sisters have a difficult life and react to their circumstances in very different ways. A horrible accident leaves Jo and Claire estranged. Obligation and betrayal tears them apart. One sister still bears the mark of their separation. Because Baker tells the story from the point of view of both sisters, we are able to understand both perspectives. Each sister stands firm in her disdain for the other. Without the addition of Dee, the two might never reunite.
Baker, though, introduces Dee, a teenage girl whose mother has died and whose father relocates her to the village. Unwittingly, Dee is the force that brings Jo and Claire back together. It is curious that Baker also tells the story from Dee’s point of view as she alternates among Jo, Claire, and Dee. Dee is not a Gilly sister. Yet her role in this tale is just as significant. Without her, the story would have a very different ending.
There are a lot of women in The Gilly Salt Sisters. The female characters in the novel are strong and well developed. The same, though, cannot be said for the men. I wonder if this is not a deliberate tactic on Baker’s part. Only women can touch the salt on the farm. Only women can cast the salt into the fire. Thus, Baker puts the fate of her novel into female hands. Gilly men seem to be cursed. For example, Mr. Gilly becomes an alcoholic and flees the farm, never to be heard from again. Henry, Jo’s twin brother, meets a horrible fate while helping bring in the salt one day, a task he was not even supposed to be doing. Baker never explains why men cannot touch the salt. Perhaps she wants to add mystery to her novel, but it feels like a gimmick.
Still, Baker manages to achieve the perfect sense of place in Prospect. Her characters are salt-of-the-earth New Englanders with a no-nonsense attitude. She is at her best, though, when she describes the Gilly salt farm. I can almost smell the brackish air. I can almost taste the salt. Baker writes about the pull of the salt. Indeed, the salt has a kind of magnetism not just on the Gilly sisters but on the whole town as well. The salt even mesmerizes the reader.
We take salt for granted today. I know I do. But Baker reminds us salt is the stuff of life. She is a master at telling this quirky tale, just as she was with her debut The Little Giant of Aberdeen County. The Gilly Salt Sisters far surpasses her first novel. I recommend it to fans of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, Aimee Bender, and Brunonia Barry. It is a story of love, loss, family secrets, rivalry, greed, redemption, and forgiveness.