Salamanca Tree Hiddle (Sal)
Sal was brought up on a farm in Bybanks, Kentucky. She is 13 years old and is a "country girl at heart." Like her mother, she has long black hair and is proud of her Seneca Indian heritage. Her parents tried to name her after the name of the Indian tribe to which her great-great-grandmother belonged, but they made a mistake. They named her Salamanca instead of Seneca. And because her mother thought trees were beautiful, Tree became her middle name. Trees play an important role in Sal's life. She prays to trees (because there is always a tree close by), and she has a "singing" tree on the farm.
Sal's inner journey through the grieving process is evident throughout the novel. She denies that her mother is dead. She insists that her mother will be coming home again. She longs for everything to be the way it was. Sal is angry and, at times, she is "ornery and stubborn as an old donkey." She wants someone to blame for her mother's abandonment of her, but her father is too good and her mother is a part of her.
Sal takes a road trip with her grandparents. She wants to see her mother's grave, but is afraid at the same time. At first Sal wants to rush to get to Lewiston, Idaho, because she feels she has to be there in time for her mother's birthday, but as they do get closer, she wants to slow down because she is scared. When Sal finally sees her mother's grave and headstone with a tree engraved on it, she knows once and for all that her mother will never be coming home.
Sal does not think she is brave. She is scared of "lots and lots of things." Sometimes she pretends to be brave when that is what people expect of her, even if she is scared to death. After her mother leaves her, Sal is afraid other people she cares about will leave also. Consequently, Sal doesn't trust people easily. She learns to trust Ben over time and eventually falls in love with him.
Sal also learns to trust Phoebe. They become close friends. Sal is attracted to Phoebe "like a magnet." Sal sees Phoebe as another version of herself — the only difference is that Phoebe acts out the way Sal sometimes feels.
Sal and her father move back to their farm and Gramps moves in with them. Sal misses her mother and is jealous of the fact that Phoebe's mother came back and her mother didn't, but Sal is no longer angry. She is content with her life as it is on the farm.
Phoebe is 13 years old. She lives with her parents and older sister, Prudence, next door to Margaret Cadaver in Euclid, Ohio. Phoebe has a round face, curly blonde hair, and large, sky-blue eyes. She is quiet and keeps to herself most of the time. Phoebe's family is a lot like the Pickfords, Sal's mother's family. They are polite and formal with each other. They rarely laugh and play together. Phoebe loves her father and thinks he is perfect. Even though Phoebe complains about her family, she defends them to anyone who dares to make a critical comment.
When Phoebe's mother disappears, Phoebe is in denial about her mother's abandonment. She refuses to believe her mother would just leave her. She has a "powerful imagination" and comes to the conclusion that the "lunatic" who has been leaving notes at their door must have kidnapped her mother. Phoebe is also a "champion worrier." She thinks someone is watching the house, she hears noises, and she is suspicious of everyone. People are not ordinary to Phoebe; "they are either perfect (like her father) . . . or they are lunatics. . . ."
Phoebe befriends Sal and, together, they investigate the "kidnapping" of Phoebe's mother. Because Phoebe is quite dramatic, she collects hair samples from her house and takes them to the police station, insisting they investigate the kidnapping of her mother.
Underneath Phoebe's annoying comments (she sometimes sounds like a grown-up) and ornery disposition, she is frightened that her mother is not going to come home. When her mother finally comes back, with her illegitimate son, Phoebe expresses her anger toward her mother. She is confused because her life will never be the same.
John is Sal's father. He is a "kind, honest, simple, and good man . . . he likes plain and simple things . . . his favorite clothes are the flannel shirts and blue jeans that he has had for twenty years." He has had the same car for fifteen years. John is a considerate, sensitive man. He does things like shovel his parents' driveway when it snows, he buys small, thoughtful gifts for his wife and daughter, and he never seems to get angry. John loves working on the farm because he can be outside and can work with the land and animals.
When his wife, Sugar, leaves, John is devastated. He fumbles around until he and Sal finally fall into a routine of their own — and then he finds out that his wife has been killed in a bus accident. He goes to Idaho to bury his wife. John deals with his grief by spending "three days chipping away at the fireplace hidden behind the plaster wall." He replaces bricks and writes Sugar's real name, Chanhassen, in the cement. Finally, John can't stand being at the farm any longer. He sees Sugar everywhere; his memories and sadness are overwhelming. He loved Sugar very much.
John and Sal move to Euclid, Ohio. Margaret Cadaver helps John get a job selling farm machinery. He spends time with Margaret because she is his connection to his dead wife. John is grieving, and he understands that Sal is grieving also. He pays attention to Sal and hugs her, talks to her, comforts her, and gives her the space and time she needs to grieve for her mother. When they are ready, and can accept the fact that Sugar is never going to come home, John and Sal return to the farm.
Chanhassen "Sugar" Hiddle
Chanhassen was Sal's mother. Chanhassen is an Indian name that means "tree sweet juice," or maple sugar. Hence, her nickname "Sugar." Sugar had long black hair, was a physically strong woman, and was not afraid of hard work. She enjoyed living on the farm because she could be close to nature and she could be outdoors. She attributed her love of nature to her Indian heritage. Her great-grandmother was a Seneca Indian and Sugar was proud of her Indian heritage.
Sugar's parents are the Pickfords. They are prim and proper people who never laugh. They are too "busy being respectable" to have fun or enjoy life. They are extremely conservative and stiff; they stand straight up and wear starched clothes. Because Sugar grew up in the Pickford household, the environment had an affect on her. She has low self-esteem and always feels as though she is not good enough. She compares herself to her husband and his happy-go-lucky family, and she feels inferior.
Sugar becomes quite depressed when her baby is stillborn. She is grieving and can't stop the feelings she is experiencing. Her solution is to go away. She wants to go to Lewiston, Idaho, to visit a cousin she hadn't seen in fifteen years. Sugar thinks her cousin will be able to tell her "what [she] is really like . . . before [she] became a wife and mother." Sugar doesn't feel brave or good. She wants to "learn about what she was."
Sugar leaves Sal a letter explaining her departure and takes a bus to Lewiston, Idaho. She sends postcards to Sal along the way telling her that she loves Sal and misses her. Then, the bus has an accident in Lewiston, Idaho, and Sugar is killed.
Gram and Gramps Hiddle
Gram and Gramps are Sal's father's parents from Kentucky. They do not live far from their son's farm. Their language is sprinkled with colorful expressions and slang such as "chickabiddy" and "gooseberry." Gramps has a raspy voice and is curious about everything, and Gram has a whispery voice and expresses spontaneous moments of joy by saying "Huzza, huzza!" Gram and Gramps are "full up to the tops of their heads with goodness and sweetness, and mixed in with all that goodness and sweetness [is] a large dash of peculiarity . . . you could never predict what they would do or say."
Gram and Gramps take Sal on a road trip to Lewiston, Idaho. They give her the opportunity to "walk in [her] mother's moccasins." They follow the same route her mother took on the bus and stop at some of the places her mother stopped. The close, loving relationship that exists between Gram and Gramps is evident during the trip. They know each other well, and treat each other with kindness and respect. They live in the moment and are excited about life.
After Gram dies in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Gramps has her body flown back to Kentucky. He buries her in the aspen grove on the farm. Gramps moves to the farm and lives with his son and granddaughter, Sal.
Ben is Mary Lou Finney's cousin. He is living with the Finney's temporarily. He has large black eyes and black eyelashes. Ben is in Sal's class at school. He draws cartoons as a means of expressing himself. Ben likes Sal. He watches her and, from time to time, he tries to kiss her. He is perceptive, noticing that every time he touches Sal, she jumps. Ben seems to understand Sal. In English class, the students have to spontaneously draw a picture of their souls. Ben's picture is identical to Sal's.
Like Sal, Ben is suffering. Sal's mother abandoned her by leaving and then dying. Ben's mother abandoned him by being sick and needing to be in a mental hospital. Ben is lonely. He visits his mother even though she doesn't seem to be aware of his presence. Ben has a connection to Sal and falls in love with her.
Margaret lives in a small house in Euclid, Ohio. She has wild red hair and gray eyes. Her mother, who lives with her, is Mrs. Partridge. Margaret's brother is Mr. Birkway, Sal's English teacher. Margaret is a nurse. Her husband was killed and her mother lost her sight when a drunk driver hit Margaret's husband's car.
Margaret was sitting next to Sugar on the bus when the accident happened in Lewiston, Idaho. Margaret was the only survivor of the crash. She met John Hiddle, Sal's father, when John went to Lewiston to bury his wife. They became friends and corresponded with each other. She helps John Hiddle find a job in Euclid and spends time with him. She is friendly towards Sal, but she is not pushy. She is patient with Sal when Sal acts ornery toward her, and when Sal is ready to listen, Margaret explains her connection to Sal's father.