the salt eaters characters

the main characters in the salt eaters are velma henry, minnie ransom, old wife, and obie.

  • velma henry is the book’s main character. she is a committed civil rights activist, and a programmer at a chemical plant, who is undergoing treatment at the southwest community infirmary following a suicide attempt.
  • minnie ransom is the healer who treats velma.
  • old wife is minnie’s spirit guide, who helps minnie heal velma’s psyche.
  • obie is velma’s husband and fellow activist. the two have a son together, lil’ james.


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velma henry

velma henry, the protagonist of the salt eaters, is a troubled woman whose internal journey is the primary focus of the narrative. immediately prior to the novels’ events, she suffers a mental health crisis and is sent to be healed by minnie ransom.

a passionate civil rights activist and feminist, velma finds herself increasingly disillusioned by the factionalism and misogyny present in the activist community. in particular, she chafes against the expectation that big-picture thinking is for the men, while administrative labor is for the women. she also works as a programmer at a chemical plant thought to be hazardous to the community; it’s implied that she is engaged in both espionage and sabotage in an attempt to undermine them.

velma is committed to her causes, forthright, and headstrong, but she is very restless and struggles greatly to find peace in her life. prior to her suicide attempt, she recalls being constantly urged to “be still” by the older women in her life.

though her relationships are close, they are all somewhat fraught: friends note that she has worked hard not to create a sense of home for herself, despite being married with a family, and many of her friends perceive her to be attention-seeking, restless, and paranoid in a way that sometimes frustrates them and makes their involvement with her difficult. velma’s relationship with her husband, obie, is somewhat complicated, too—throughout the book, they’re in an ongoing state of conflict over the gender-based division of their domestic work, her relationship to activism, and their relationships to people outside the marriage. it is suggested that at various times in the marriage, they are both unfaithful.

ultimately, velma’s healing experience with minnie ransom leads her to reflect on the many times in her life that she might have died and didn’t, up to and including her suicide attempt. this, she concludes, suggests an underlying pull toward life that reinvigorates her at the novel’s close and draws her back toward consciousness.

minnie ransom

minnie ransom is a healer who works out of the southwest community infirmary. she is well respected in the community, and people often travel some distance to be healed by her. under the guidance of old wife, she guides velma henry through an out-of-body journey. at various points throughout the process, she “loans” parts of herself to velma—her breath, her legs, her energy—and these offerings help velma throughout her recovery.

minnie is described as a tiny woman, bedecked with jewelry and layers. she has a good sense of humor and whimsy, bantering with her spirit guide throughout the healing process.

old wife

old wife is minnie ransom’s spirit guide. together, the two undertake the healing of velma henry. old wife is wise but also playful: she often teases minnie ransom, refusing to give her a direct answer even when called upon. they often disagree about religion and philosophy.

at the time of the novel’s events, old wife is dead and appears to minnie as a spirit, or a “haint,” but it’s eventually revealed that she knew and mentored minnie prior to her death as well.

james lee henry (“obie”)

james lee henry, called “obie” by most of the characters, is velma’s husband. obie is philosophical and optimistic, committed to making his marriage to velma work even when she seems to lose faith.

obie is an activist who shares many of velma’s social concerns, but they argue quite a bit about the implementation of their shared work. obie thinks velma should put less energy toward activism and more toward motherhood.

together, he and velma are raising a...

(this entire section contains 821 words.)

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son they call lil’ james. the birth of lil’ james was especially meaningful to obie, who struggled with his unfulfilled desire for children in his prior relationships.

sophie heywood / “m’dear”

sophie heywood, called “m’dear” by some of the novel’s characters, is velma henry’s godmother and the landlady of a boarding house in claybourne. she cares a great deal about velma but is also endlessly perplexed by her. despite having been through many trials together, she doesn’t fully understand what velma needs from the world.

sophie is a maternal figure to velma but also to other members of the community—she takes care of her boarders and is affectionately known to them as “m’dear.” an activist herself, sophie is haunted by trauma experienced during the activism of her younger days and especially by violence sustained during her brief period of incarceration.


palma is velma’s long-suffering sister. she is known as “sister of the yam” in a “seven sisters” troupe, a pluralistic group consisting of one woman each from seven different cultures. her relationship with velma is complicated, but their connection is incredibly strong—when velma is in trouble, palma’s body warns her by stopping her menstrual cycle as a sign.




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