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Traveling Across the Country
The story begins when Salamanca Tree Hiddle heads out with her grandparents from Ohio, on a road trip to Lewiston, Idaho, where Sal's mother is buried. As the three travelers head west, Sal talks about Phoebe Winterbottom, her best friend, who has something in common with Sam: both of their mothers just left home one day.
Sal met Phoebe when Sal and her father moved to Ohio from their farm in Kentucky, and Sal's father met Margaret Cadaver, who lives next door to Phoebe. Phoebe is quite an imaginative girl, and she believes that there must be some way that Mrs. Cadaver, a collection of odd letters that show up on Phoebe's porch, and the "lunatic" (a boy who shows up at Phoebe's house one day) are all connected. Sal jumps into Phoebe's conspiracy theories to escape from her own pain at her mother's sudden departure.
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Mixing Two Stories
No summary of Walk Two Moons would be complete without a discussion of the way that Sal keeps going back and forth between two stories: Phoebe's story, and memories of her own mother, who felt inferior to her husband in many ways. Both Sal's mother and Phoebe's mother felt that their families were not paying any attention to them, and that their lives were basically going nowhere.
Around this time, Sal and her grandparents arrive in South Dakota, and they all stop and take a dip in the Missouri River. However, Gram gets a snakebite, and even though they take her to the hospital, and she gets better, her physical condition goes down from here.
Back to Phoebe, though -- one day, her mother goes away, without a note or conversation. Phoebe suspects kidnappers at first and starts looking for clues. Then, Sal then talks about her mother's vanishing. After Sal had broken her leg in a fall from a tree, her mother (pregnant at the time) had picked her up, carrying her all the way back to the house and driving her to the hospital. This sent her into premature labor. Her baby died, and she almost died herself. In grief, she decided to travel alone to visit a cousin in Idaho.
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Now the plot gets a bit more intense. As Phoebe's mother's unexplained disappearance causes more and more stress in their home, it gets to be too much for Phoebe's father, who breaks down and cries when Phoebe argues that her mother would not have left without explaining why. Phoebe gets Sal to go with her to the police department and turn in the "evidence" they have found of a kidnapping.
By now, Sal and her grandparents have made it to Yellowstone National Park and enjoy the power of Old Faithful. Phoebe finds out that the "lunatic" is really the police sergeant's son. She also finds out that he goes to college nearby, and so she decides that he must know where her mother is. She and Sal ride a bus to the college to find him, and they find him and Phoebe's mother holdings hands on a bench, and Phoebe flees the spot. Her mother comes home a few days later, and it turns out that the "lunatic" is really her illegitimate son.
Sal also finds out that Mrs. Cadaver had also been her mother's friend, and that Mrs. Cadaver had been the only survivor of the bus wreck that killed Sal's mother -- that is why she and Sal's father became friends, because she was the only one who could tell him about his wife's final days and hours.
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Finally in Idaho
As the story reaches its climax, Sal and her grandparents finally make it to Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, but Gram is too sick to go to her daughter's grave. They take her to a hospital, but Gramps lets Sal drive the car down the dangerous, hilly roads to the site where Sal's mother's bus crashed -- indeed, the wrecked bus is still there.
When Sal comes back to the car from inspecting her bus, the sheriff is waiting for her and would have taken her in, but her story moved him. He takes her to her mother's grave and back to Coeur d'Alene -- however, her grandmother has already passed away. Sal eventually returns home to her father's farm in Kentucky, having dealt with the loss of her mother.
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Themes in the Novel
As we close this summary, it's important to look at some of the themes at work.
As you read, you will notice many different scenes with vivid images from nature. As Sal and her grandparents head west, they pass the Great Lakes, the Missouri River, the Dakota Badlands, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone National Park. When the three characters stop and bask in the beauty of these natural features, they experience closeness -- and even joy. Nature can undo many of the hurts that existence brings us.
Walking a Mile...
Look in the front of the book -- the epigraph is "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." It would be very easy for Sal to judge her mother for just taking off. However, Sal is patient enough to see life from the perspective of Phoebe's mother, and that helps her understand how her mother might have been feeling. This attempt to see life from another's perspective makes it much more difficult to judge others.
Stories have been a part of entertainment, and a method of passing values from one generation to the next, almost since time began. Notice how the story of Phoebe's mother powerfully affects Sal -- and helps her understand her own situation. Stories help us get through tragedy and trauma, because they make us realize that others have been where we are.