This is not a book that I had been meaning to read, but it’s the first 7th grade reading assignment for this year, and I figured I might be able to help my son a bit if I read it too. Oy! I was not prepared for the gut punch of this story and I wonder what kind of conversations it will generate amongst 12 year olds. Walk Two Moons is the story of Salamanca Tree Hiddle and her family falling apart. She’s just a kid, maybe 12 or 13, but the lovely life she had has been upended. Her mother left without explanation, and then her father took her away from her beloved farm in Kentucky to Euclid Ohio. In Ohio, she befriends the eccentric Phoebe and gets caught up in Phoebe’s family drama, some of which is fueled by Phoebe’s vivid imagination. This is a novel about mothers and children, and about how one manages to find hope once Pandora’s box has been opened.
Sal narrates her story not just to us, the readers, but also to her grandparents as they drive her west to Idaho. Sal’s mother is in Lewiston, ID, and Sal is hoping to get to her by her mother’s birthday. Sal’s grandparents are a bit eccentric, full of humor and deep love for one another, but also a little loose with rules and laws regarding things like turns, parking and underage driving. To make the long car trip go faster, Sal tells them Phoebe’s story, which involves a missing mother, a lunatic, and possibly a kidnapping and murder. The part of the story set in Ohio also involves Mrs. Cadaver, who may be a love interest for her father and lives next door to Phoebe; an enthusiastic English teacher who is fond of journaling; and some classroom friends, such as Ben, who lives with his cousins. Sal is a fairly easygoing kid, but Phoebe, thanks to her family, is meticulous to the point of annoyance over a variety of things such as diet, grooming and household management. When Phoebe’s mother disappears, Phoebe cannot believe anything less than foul play is involved. Sal, having been through her own mother’s departure, has sympathy for Phoebe but she has also become more self-reflective and observant. She begins to wonder if what she thought she knew about her mother and family are accurate after all.
Sal’s family history is complicated. Her relationship with her grandparents is warm and deeply loving. As silly as they sometimes seem, it becomes clear that their wanderings along the highway and their frequent stops, which annoy Sal, are part of a bigger plan. Creech gives them a beautiful backstory, showing a relationship that has had its troubles and pain but has been rooted in a lifelong love. The story of Sal’s parent’s marriage is revealed in pieces, as Sal tries to make sense of it herself. Her childhood memories are filled with love and happiness, but she also remembers her mother being unhappy sometimes and feeling as if she weren’t good enough. Her father is a good parent and husband, but why is he friends with this Mrs. Cadaver? Whenever he wants to talk to Sal about her, Sal shuts him off. She desperately misses her mother and keeps hoping and wishing that she will return.
One of the things I love about this story is Creech’s ability to show the complex lives of one’s parents, especially mothers. There are several absentee mothers in this novel, and the reasons for those absences vary greatly. Sal and the reader will learn that it is possible to love someone and yet need to separate oneself from a family situation. Sometimes families heal but sometimes they don’t. It helps if you can put yourself in someone else’ shoes, imagine what they are feeling and why, as Sal will eventually learn.
The ending of the novel is a mix of sad and hopeful, just like Pandora’s box, a story that is featured within the novel. This is really a great story for kids. I think they will identify with Sal, Phoebe and Ben, the boy who seems to have a crush on Sal. There are some very funny scenes, as well as the awkward stuff that goes along with middle school — first crushes and being embarrassed in class. Creech does a wonderful job dealing with the tough topic of parental absence, too. Maybe students who read this will develop greater empathy and concern for classmates who walk a path different from their own.