Salamanca ("Sal") Tree Hiddle
As a child Sal was extremely close to her mother and shared her mother's love of nature, which her mother attributed to their partial Native American heritage. Her mother has a miscarriage, and Sal blames herself for it because it happens after her mother lifts Sal, who has broken her leg. When Sal's mother leaves on a trip to Idaho soon after, Sal is distraught. She has trouble knowing what to feel without her mother there to provide an example. When word arrives that Sal's mother has died, Sal cannot believe that she'll never come back. Sal is extremely upset about moving to Euclid, Ohio, and is uninterested in getting to know her father's friend Margaret Cadaver. When she watches her friend Phoebe Winterbottom go through her own mother's disappearance, Sal is empathetic and uses the experience to better understand her own mother's need to leave her family for a time. Sal doesn't want to journey to Lewiston, Idaho, with her grandparents, but she knows she must. She is determined to reach Lewiston by her mother's birthday. Sal accomplishes her goal and spends the morning of the birthday in the graveyard where her mother is buried. Sal decides that her mother's spirit lives on in the nature around her. She is happy to return to her beloved farm home in Bybanks, Kentucky, with a new sense of peace, self-awareness, and closure. As a result of her difficult experiences, Sal develops empathy and understanding for other people.
Phoebe Winterbottom has a wild imagination and tends to believe that people are either good or evil. She makes up stories about her neighbor, Mrs. Cadaver, believing that she murdered her husband, and about the boy who knocks on her front door, believing that he is a lunatic. Phoebe is unappreciative of her attentive mother, Mrs. Winterbottom, until Mrs. Winterbottom suddenly disappears without explanation. Phoebe becomes obsessed with finding her mother and believes that she has been kidnapped by the lunatic. Phoebe collects clues and takes them to the police station but isn't taken seriously. When she and Sal finally track down the lunatic, Mike Bickle, and find him sitting on a bench sharing fun and affection with Phoebe's disappeared mother, Phoebe becomes disgusted with her mother and claims she no longer wants her to return. Phoebe thinks her mother doesn't need her and is angry when her mother returns home and announces that Mike Bickle is the son she had before she married Phoebe's father. Eventually Phoebe accepts her mother and her new brother and becomes a more relaxed, less fearful, less judgmental person.
When Gram was young her wild spirit and her beauty attracted Gramps. She consented to marry Gramps after she was satisfied that he treated his dog well, saying if he treated a dog so well, he would surely treat her better. Even in her old age Gram, affectionately called "gooseberry" by her husband, retains her taste for adventure and her gusto for life. On their road trip Gram encourages Sal to entertain her with a story, and so Sal tells her and Gramps the story of Phoebe Winterbottom. Gram is extremely interested in Phoebe's story. Gram spontaneously joins in with a group of Native American dancers in Wisconsin. When they stop to swim in the Missouri River, Gram is bitten by a poisonous snake, and her health begins declining. She achieves one of her lifetime dreams of seeing the geyser Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Soon thereafter, she has a stroke and dies in the hospital in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Her body is flown back to the family land in Bybanks, Kentucky, where she is buried.
Gramps is a free-spirited man, both in his youth and old age, who is very tender toward animals and to his wife, Gram. He is unconcerned with rules and treats life as an adventure. Sometimes his lack of concern for rules and customs gets him or others into trouble, despite his good intentions. When he tries to help a woman who is having car trouble, he ends up disassembling her engine, making the problem worse. During their road trip Gramps is fond of saying that the beds they sleep in aren't his marriage bed but will have to do. His marriage bed is the bed he was born in, and the bed that he has always slept in with his wife. Gramps claims he will die in his marriage bed, and it will know all there is to know about him. When Gram has a stroke and goes into the hospital in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Gramps gives Sal money and car keys so she can go alone to Lewiston, Idaho, in time for her mother's birthday. Gramps stays by his wife's side until she dies, even though she is unconscious. The night Gram dies Gramps writes her the first love letter he has ever written her. After Gram's death Gramps lives on the farm in Bybanks, Kentucky, with Sal and her father. As he rides with Sal while she practices driving, they tell Native American stories and play the "moccasin game," where they practice empathy by imagining what it would feel like to be in another person's position.
Mrs. Winterbottom is clearly unhappy in her role as devoted wife and mother. Her family is uninterested in her and seems indifferent to her interest in them, which she expresses by performing her housekeeping and cooking duties perfectly. She is an anxious woman who likes to keep the doors and windows locked. Several times Sal and Phoebe come upon Mrs. Winterbottom when she has been crying. Once Sal hears her ask her daughter Prudence whether Prudence thinks she lives "a tiny life." Mrs. Winterbottom is very disturbed when the messages start appearing on the porch and wants to know who is sending them. Before she was married to Mr. Winterbottom, she had a son, whom she gave up for adoption. When her son reappears in her life, Mrs. Winterbottom has a crisis and goes away to find out who she really is. This son is the boy that Phoebe is convinced is a lunatic after he shows up at their house. When Mrs. Winterbottom finally returns home to her family she brings her son, Mike Bickle, with her. She has cut her hair and has new, stylish clothes. She breaks down and begs her husband's forgiveness. She has tried to be perfect and respectable but feels as if she has failed, and she is prepared for her husband to reject her. In the end, the other Winterbottoms accept Mrs. Winterbottom and her son, Phoebe and Prudence's half-brother, Mike.
Sugar Pickford Hiddle
Sugar dies before the narrative begins, but Sal relates many things about her mother through the course of the novel. Sugar was proud of her partial Native American ancestry, and the name she gave her daughter, Salamanca, is a misnomer for the tribe that her great-grandmother belonged to, the Seneca. Sugar loves stories and nature, and she has passed that love on to Sal. When Sal sees her mother eating blackberries and then kissing a tree, Sal starts kissing trees and claims she always tastes a hint of blackberries in these kisses. Sugar is about to have a second baby when Sal breaks her leg falling out of a tree. Sugar finds her daughter and carries her in her arms back to the house, and then miscarries. After this everything changes. Sugar becomes sad and feels that she will never be as good as her husband. She decides to go on a trip to Lewiston, Idaho, to discover who she is besides a wife and mother. Before she leaves, she insists that her name isn't Sugar, the name that people call her, but that her true name is her Indian name, Chanhassen. On the bus ride she befriends her seatmate, Margaret Cadaver, and tells her all about Sal, her husband, and their home in Bybanks. She sends Sal postcards all along the way and promises to return home. She never returns because she is killed when the bus goes over the side of the mountain. Sugar is buried in a cemetery in Lewiston, Idaho.