REVIEW: A saga of leaving and returning

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 10:42 AM

“Salt in the Sugar Bowl”
By Angela Belcher Epps
(Main Street Rag Publishing Company, $12)


When Angela Belcher Epps’ novella “Salt in the Sugar Bowl” opens, Sophia Sawyer is making her way on a Coastline Express bus “past the black fields of eastern North Carolina,” leaving the fictional town of Hayden for Norington, where she can find work and “live off the profits left by a steady stream of tourists.”
Three days earlier, a social worker showed up at the door with a baby and a young boy, the other children of her husband Hunt Sawyer. Sophia, despite her moral reluctance, decides to leave Hunt and their children forever.
The opening pages of Sophia’s journey will draw you into this fine novella about how one family member’s choices affect those who are left behind. Belcher Epps tells the story of the Sawyers during the generation after Sophia leaves, through the eyes of different family members. The author’s language is simple and direct, and her narrative technique is well-crafted. (The simplicity reminds me, in a distant way, of Gertrude Stein’s “Three Lives.”) Rather than a strict chronological approach, Belcher Epps introduces us to the characters during their present lives, then flashes back to earlier scenes.
Hunt does his best to be a single father, but each child’s story and circumstances are vastly different. The characters are sometimes quirky, sometimes irresponsible, often in earnest, but Belcher Epps makes us cheer for them and care about them. We want them to find what they are searching for -- the balance their parents never had in their lives.
The daughter Carlene, 16, has great spirit and is a finely drawn character. She has a driver’s license, but makes her way around Hayden by bike. Riding the bike “taught her to be alone, to keep her own company, to use her power however she could ….” She uses that power to take care of her siblings, and later, her child, Baby Carla. After Hunt dies from lung cancer, she refuses to go live with her Aunt Edna and chooses to remain and keep her father’s house. Her brothers Kent and Boyd also choose to remain grounded. Kent works to keep a troubled marriage intact, and Boyd sets about building a commune where his extended family and his co-workers who were laid off by their employers can find happiness and a sense of worth.
Eva, the eldest sister, has a far different fate. She is suspicious that her husband Dan is cheating on her while making his long-distance trucking runs. Their estranged relationship improves when Eva rents a house in the country, where life seems to work for her, until her children begin missing school, and the truancy officers threaten to take legal action. In a move reminiscent of Sophia’s years before, Eva decides to leave with her children because, as she explains to them, “‘Sometimes things go wrong, and life just makes you leave.’”
Life made her brother Cook leave the family at 15, never to be heard from again. He has lived by his wits, and Cook and his wife Rose and their children live off the grid (the children are home delivered) in an abandoned trailer. Their daughter Marina is a voracious reader, and her curiosity about the world outside is piqued by books and magazines. She, too, decides to make a decision like Sophia’s. And while she never met her grandmother, Marina is “comforted by Sophia’s courage to go after a life that was calling her – even if her family wept when she turned her back on them.”
Belcher Epps, who teaches English at a Raleigh alternative high school and blogs on her site at www.thewritingclinic.com, has written a touching family saga, about leaving and returning, about love, and about doing the best with what you are given.