Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


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.