Learning to Walk in Someone Else’s Moccasins
The title of this novel is a clue to the central theme that runs through it. It alludes to the Native American saying that you cannot judge someone, until you have walked two moons in their moccasins. Throughout this young adult novel, Sal comes to terms with the traumatic events of the past year and develops a mature outlook by observing the people around her and learning to see things from another point of view.
When we first meet Sal, she is a thirteen year old girl, who is angry and upset at being uprooted from Bybanks, the place where she grew up, and transplanted elsewhere. As the novel progresses, we understand that she is also recovering from losing her mother. Sal’s mother had initially left the family temporarily, but was tragically killed, when her bus crashed off the narrow road to Lewiston, Idaho.
We trace Sal’s recovery and progress in two interrelated narrative strands. Throughout the novel, we follow Sal and her grandparents as they take her on a long trip, to the place where her mother died, following the route she took, which they can trace from postcards her mother sent home. This journey has a healing effect on Sal; by visiting the place where her mother died and seeing her grave, she finally comes to believe on a deep level that her mother is dead and is not coming back. She has also learnt that she can live without her.
Sal Learns from the Story of Phoebe Winterbottom
The other strand of the narrative is the story Sal tells her grandparents as they drive. She tells the story of Phoebe Winterbottom, her best friend whom she goes to school with in her new town. We are explicitly told that Phoebe’s story parallels Sal’s; her own mother goes missing. By supporting Phoebe through this crisis and also by observing her reactions as an outsider, Sal begins to make sense of her own tragedy and also develops empathy and understanding. One way we are shown this is when Phoebe begins behaving in a rude and childish manner as a response to her mother’s disappearance. Sal understands and puts up with her demanding and critical manner, even though she finds it annoying, because she understands that Phoebe is lost and distressed. It also, however, prompts her to wonder what impact her own behavior had on her father, when she sulked and raged, after her mother left and at being taken from her home, where her father could not bear to stay.
Sal also comes to understand that however much Phoebe tantrums or comes up with sinister theories about what has happened to her mother, she has no power to bring her back because her mother’s disappearance is not about Phoebe but about her own issues. At her grandparents’ probing, Sal acknowledges that she now understands that her own mother leaving was not about her.
How other Characters Change and Develop in Walk Two Moons
Phoebe’s family, the Winterbottoms are forced to reconsider their behavior, as a result of the events in the novel. When we first meet them, they present a stiflingly “respectable" front, addressing each other in a stiltedly formal manner. Sal perceives that all is not well, that Mrs. Winterbottom is frustrated in her role as perfect housewife and mother, particularly as the rest of the family take her for granted and pay little attention to her. This lack of communication and excessive concern for outward appearances is revealed to have allowed a painful secret to fester. Mrs. Winterbottom never felt able to tell her husband that, before they met, she had borne a son and had him adopted. When her adopted son turns up at her house, Mrs. Winterbottom feels the need to leave the family to deal with her past and with the gap between appearances and who she really is. When Mr. Winterbottom discovers the truth, what he finds hard to accept, is not that Mrs. Winterbottom had the child, but that she felt unable to tell him. As a family, the Winterbottoms learn the importance of open communication and also of appreciating Mrs. Winterbottom as a human being and not merely as fulfilling a tedious but essential role as housewife and mother.
Mr Birkway, the enthusiastic English teacher, reads out the private journals of his English class, oblivious to the upset and conflict it causes, when classmates hear what they have said about each other. Mr. Birkway simply appreciates the journals at an abstract, literary level, finding something worthwhile and insightful in everything he reads. It is only when he is forced to read aloud Phoebe’s suspicions that his sister, Margaret Cadaver, murdered her husband that he realizes how insensitive he has been. To his credit, Mr. Birkway quickly understands his fault and apologizes to Phoebe and the class for making their private thoughts public, rather than blaming Phoebe for what she wrote about his sister. Like Sal, Mr. Birkway has had to learn to walk in someone else’s moccasins.
Reference: Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech, Harper Collins, 1994
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MG_9750.jpg