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Salt Dancers

Reading Group Guide

    Reading Group Discussion Points
    1. Julia returns to her father after an absence of twenty-three years, because, she says, "I was afraid I'd mess up my child's life if I didn't sort out before her birth why things had gone so terribly wrong with my family." Why is it important for Julia to sort these matters out before her child is born? Do you feel Julia accomplishes what she sets out to do?
    2. When Julia finally confronts her father, asking him why he beat her as a child, he denies it. He continues to deny it even after Travis tells him it is true. Is it possible that he really doesn't remember? How could this be? Is this answer satisfying to Julia? Is it enough for Julia to have simply spoken the truth? What is Hegi saying about the past and our ability to come to terms with it?
    3. We come to understand what happens to Julia. Yet ultimately, where does her brother Travis land? Why does he still live with his father? What is the significance of his organizing yard sales? Why do you think he chose his father's side, "the wrong side" rather than Julia's, when, as a child, he knew his father was beating her? What is Travis's role in the family? How does he serve to keep things the way they were?
    4. When Julia finally meets her mother, she asks her why she left her children. Lily answers, "It was better this way, Julia." When Julia confronts her further, Lily says, "It would have been harmful for you to know." Julia responds, "Not nearly as harmful as losing you without a word, wondering...." Knowing how it affected Julia, do you think Lily's choice was wise? Do you believe it would have been more harmful for Julia to have known? Why do you think Lily made this choice?
    5. Both Julia and Travis are able to forgive their mother. What makes this possible? Is there power in forgiveness? What is Hegi trying to say about forgiveness? Does Julia forgive her father as well?
    6. Hegi writes, "The tide was out now, and in the mist I felt betrayed, adrift without the old purpose of chasing after my mother. I'd found her, but I'd relinquished the fantasy that had served me for over thirty years. A trade of sorts -- though not even. Still, a better trade, perhaps than the one she'd made." What trade did Lily make? What did she lose and what did she gain? What might Hegi be trying to say about trading fantasy for truth?
    7. In the beginning of the book, Julia recalls her recurring nightmare. "I chase down an endless corridor after a tall figure. I run as fast as I can, my breath a rattle in my throat that blocks all other sounds. The walls narrow, and the distance between us decreases, but when the figure finally turns, the face is blank. After my mother vanished, I would come to believe she was the figure in that dream -- a warning I had failed to understand." What is it Julia fails to understand? Who is the figure and how does Julia's recognition help to free her from her troubled past? Why does this dream recur? Why is this dream so important to this novel?
    8. Near the end of the book, Julia begins to realize that many of the good memories she attributed to her mother -- teaching her to swim, for example -- were in reality connected to her father. As a result, she begins to question her ability to recall, "...lured into the maze of memories that tricks us with distorted reflections of what we commit to its safekeeping; and what we wrest from it changes each time we hold it against the light, depending on the slant of the light and its intensity. And so we embellish our stories. Protect ourselves with gaps. And take all of that for truth. All of it." Discuss why this observation is important to Salt Dancers in many ways. Does this understanding help Julia cope with all her memories of her father? What is Hegi saying about truth and perception?
    9. In Salt Dancers, both Lily and Julia get away. Both are described as strong, independent women. Travis and Calven do not get away -- in fact they end up living together in a complex, overly dependent relationship. Why is it that the women escape while the men remain?
    10. There are many references to gypsies in Salt Dancers, in particular to Lily's fascination with them. What does Lily find so intriguing about them? What do they represent for her? What do gypsies mean to Julia, and how does Hegi develop them as a metaphor?
    11. What is the salt dance? What does it mean to Julia when she is a child and her father first invents it? What meaning does it acquire in the course of the novel? What does Hegi mean when, near the end of the novel, she writes, "In my family, we all had become salt dancers, inventing our difficult escapes from pain."
    12. Hegi writes, "I didn't know then that things you don't talk about -- ghosts and secrets -- feed on silence, that they grow massive and imposing until you divest them of their feast." How does this quote inform the novel? How is it possible that twenty-three years passed, in Julia's case, without mention of ghosts and secrets? How does Julia finally divest her ghosts and secrets of their feast? What is it about human nature which causes us to keep secret those things which are most in need of being brought out into the open?
    Recommended Readings
    Anywhere But Here, Mona Simpson
    Vintage Books, 1992
    Where Blue Begins, Janice Deaner
    Signet Books, 1994
    The Color Purple, Alice Walker
    Pocket Books, 1986
    Machine Dreams, Jayne Anne Phillips
    Washington Square Press, 1992
    Exposure, Kathryn Harrison
    Warner Books, 1994
    Family Pictures, Sue Miller
    Harper Collins, 1991
    The Fatigue Artist, Lynne S. Schwartz
    Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995
    Monkeys, Susan Minot
    Pocket Books, 1989
    Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
    Viking Penguin, 1977
    Unstrung Heroes, Franz Lidz
    Random House, 1991

More Books From This Author

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Ursula Hegi The Burgdorf Cycle Boxed Set
The Worst Thing I've Done
Sacred Time

About the Author

Ursula Hegi
Photo Credit: Gordon Gagliano

Ursula Hegi

Ursula Hegi is the author of The Worst Thing I've Done, Sacred Time, Hotel of the Saints, The Vision of Emma Blau, Tearing the Silence, Salt Dancers, Stones from the River, Floating in My Mother's Palm, Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories, Intrusions, and Trudi & Pia. She teaches writing at Stonybrook's Southhampton Campus and she is the recipient of more than thirty grants and awards.