Walk Two Moons
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Role of Stories in Human Experience
Walk Two Moons is in fact a collection of individual stories told from a number of different perspectives woven into a coherent narrative: we read not only Sal and Phoebe's stories, but Greek myths, Native American myths, old family stories, and snippets from students' journals. Each story fits into the main narratives and also resonates and amplifies the meaning and substance of other stories. At the same time, each story plays a distinct role in the narrative, demonstrating the power stories have to affect human experience and consciousness. Phoebe uses her story about the lunatic to ward off other, more threatening, explanations of Mrs. Winterbottom's disappearance. Sal uses Phoebe's story as a way to relive her own story and come to a better understanding of it. Gram and Gramp's stories provide Sal with a sense of her own family history and with a model for her own life and loves. The myths interspersed throughout the novel offer both the characters and the readers a means of understanding the origins, state, and implications of the human condition. Sal tells her own story as a means of reflecting on it and coming to accept it.
The Past's Intrusion into the Present
Sal incorporates stories of the past into the present moment of her narrative, sometimes stopping to add a story as a means of explanation, or actually embedding them into the narrative as a journal entry or a memory triggered during the course of the narrative. She tells the story of her mother, which precedes both the primary (the trip across the States) and secondary (the story of Phoebe) narratives of the novel, through these spontaneous or embedded flashes of memory. For example, she writes in her journal about her mother's tree kissing, a tree in the parking lot in South Dakota reminds her of the singing tree in her backyard, and Phoebe's family triggers her memory of the morning her father left flowers on the table for Sal and her mother. Sal's narration of her memories demonstrates that the past will not stay put. The narration bubbles up into the present and drives events and emotions. In fact, as Sal's long journey across the country shows, the present is often nothing more than attempt to relive and understand the past.
Empathy as a Source of Understanding
Both the epigraph of the book and the first message that appears on Phoebe's doorstep read "don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." Sal takes this advice to heart throughout the book, using her visualizations of other people's lives both to inform her own experience and to increase her compassion for others. By placing herself in Mrs. Winterbottom's shoes, Sal generates ideas about how her own mother may have felt at moments in her life. When Sal grows angry with Phoebe, she finds herself wondering if her father feels the same way toward her at times. Sal's ability to envision the stories of others allows her to empathize with Margaret Cadaver, who lost her husband in a car accident, and consequently to put her childish resentment of her aside. At the end of the book, Sal and Gramps actively practice empathy, regularly verbalizing and envisioning what others are experiencing. This practice allows Sal to treat others with greater kindness and understanding and gives her a way to measure and understand her own behavior and past.
Nature as a Source of Comfort and Strength
While the novel centers on a journey of loss and acceptance, it grounds this journey in a series of beautiful natural objects and places. Sal's understanding of her past is inextricably bound to trees, fields, wildberries, and lakes, and during her journey, she passes by Lake Michigan, the Wisconsin Dells, Pipestone National Monument, the Missouri River, the Badlands, the Black Hills, Old Faithful, and the mountains of Montana and Idaho. Both Sal and her grandparents experience moments of companionship, great emotion, and even rapture in the face of these natural phenomena. Sal and all her family members clearly harbor a deep respect and appreciation for nature and understand it as one of the many priceless blessings that life, often cruel and unpredictable, bestows upon us.
The Dissatisfied Woman
Disaffected, confused, and depressed mothers populate the pages of Walk Two Moons with alarming frequency. Mrs. Winterbottom, Sal's mother, and Ben's mother all experience depression or mental stress severe enough to affect their day-to-day lives. Mrs. Winterbottom and Sal's mother are both clearly troubled by their role as mother and wife, and the struggle to understand how their pasts and their "true selves" relate to these roles results in confusion, depression, and the need to be alone. Through the suffering of these women, Creech draws attention to the stress and disappointment involved with the sense of being confined to a role or of living an insignificant life.
The messages, postcards, and journal entries embedded in the text of Walk Two Moons all demonstrate the uncertainty and difficulty involved in interpreting the words of others. Phoebe twists the benign and comical messages left on her doorstep into series of threats or mysterious clues hinting at Mrs. Winterbottom's whereabouts. Mr. Birkway, who argues with his students that ambiguity is one of the greatest beauties of written texts, sees the journals they have written as "brilliant" examples of conflicting emotions, whereas his students see them as embarrassing revelations of their most private thoughts. Sal struggles to interpret the conflicting message of the postcards her mother sends her. Each postcard expresses love for Sal, and yet reminds Sal that her mother needed to leave her to take a long, soul-searching trip. Throughout the novel, Sal becomes more and more skilled at understanding and accepting these ambiguities.
Throughout the novel, the characters use journeys as a means of both escaping from a painful present and of invoking confrontation with the source of their trouble. Sal's mother and Phoebe's mother leave home to come to terms with their doubts about their pasts and their roles. Sal leaves home first to reverse and later, she realizes, to concretize her mother's death. Each character uses a physical journey to induce an emotional journey, which will, they hope, allow them to live more truly and fully in their original roles.
Two of Sal's memories of her mother involve blackberries: the memory of her mother's desire to compete with and be as good as her father, and the memory of her mother sneaking a mouthful of fresh blackberries and kissing a tree. The blackberries symbolize nature's spontaneous bounty and generosity, to which Sal's mother is so keenly attuned. As gifts for Sal and her father, the blackberries symbolize Sal's mother's desire to share her love of the earth and the earth's goodness with her family, even though Sal's mother feels this gift pales in comparison to her husband's spontaneity and his steadiness. Sal incorporates blackberries into her own narrative, writing in her journal about tasting blackberries when she kisses trees, joking with Ben about the blackberry taste of their first kiss, and accepting a chicken from Ben named Blackberry. Blackberries symbolize the unexpected and unsolicited small sweet things in life, which occur even in the face of tragedy and human strife.
The Singing Tree
Sal notices three singing trees throughout the novel, each of which plays a role in the progression of her narrative. The first is the tree on her farm in Kentucky, a tree that contained a beautiful songbird in its highest branches and seemed to sing on its own. The second is the tree outside the hospital in South Dakota, which triggers her memory of home. The third singing tree is located near her mother's grave in Lewiston, Idaho. The three trees both represent and express Sal's powerful emotional reactions to the natural world, but also respond to her changing emotions: the tree on the farm did not sing on the day she and her father found out that her mother had died. Like blackberries, the singing trees represent the spontaneous and unasked for generosity of the natural world, but the also represent Sal, whose middle name is "Tree." The trees respond to loss and grief—they do not always sing—but they retain their beauty and their ability to express and induce joy.
Both Sal's mother and Mrs. Winterbottom cut their hair before or during their journey. Sal's mother, to her husband's chagrin, cuts her long black hair in the kitchen the week before she leaves, and Mrs. Winterbottom cuts hers while she is gone, returning home with a stylish new haircut. Both women cut their hair as part of their attempt to transform themselves. They are casting off their former selves, and perhaps casting off a part of themselves that marks their gender, a part traditionally associated with feminine beauty. To Sal, her mother's hair symbolizes something more complicated. Carefully saved and hidden beneath her floorboards in Bybanks, Kentucky, her mother's hair represents the happiness her mother once knew and lost. Her hair, saved but deeply hidden, reminds Sal of the idealized mother she is beginning to realize never existed.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!