Above the Salt: Book summary and reviews of Above the Salt by Katherine Vaz

Above the Salt

A Novel

by Katherine Vaz

Above the Salt by Katherine Vaz X
Above the Salt by Katherine Vaz
Buy This Book

About this book

Book Summary

An irresistible and sweeping love story that follows two Portuguese refugees who flee religious violence and reignite their budding romance in Civil-War America.

John Alves, son of a famous Presbyterian martyr on the Portuguese island of Madeira, spends his childhood in jail and in poverty. When he meets Mary Freitas―though the adopted daughter of a master botanist, her true lineage is the subject of dangerous rumor―a spark kindles a lasting bond. But soon their families must confront the rising blood tide of warfare between Catholics and Protestants. Fleeing with only what they can carry, John and Mary are separated and arrive at different times and places in a rapidly growing and changing mid-nineteenth-century Illinois.

Years later, John settles into his life as an educator at Jacksonville's nationally renowned school for the deaf, and Mary is a gardener in Springfield for handsome, wealthy Edward Moore. After John and Mary reconnect, the home of rising politician Abraham Lincoln provides a prime setting for their courtship. But conflict looms on the horizon, and John is torn. Should he join the Union army to prove his loyalty to his new country, or should he stay to fight for the chance to make a life with the one he loves?

And should Mary accept Edward's marriage proposal since he is a partner in her business of selling the miracle-berry fruit she transported from Madeira, or should she choose her passion for John? Social jealousies and betrayals compound the obstacles unleashed by the Civil War.

In poignant and lyrical prose, Katherine Vaz's Above the Salt is a captivating and beautiful tribute to the power of true love and the sacrifices we make to harness it.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!


Media Reviews

" 'His paper-thin skin advertised his bones. Men like this resembled their own memento mori, and yet they never saw it.' Readers will be entranced by this ambitious and heartbreaking saga." ―Publishers Weekly

"What are our obligations to honor and love? How do we build lives across divides of time and space? Katherine Vaz asks big questions through the rich tapestry of daily life. Above the Salt is a gorgeous, surprising novel, at once intricate and bold." ―Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point and Kantika

"Large, lush, and luscious, Above the Salt sings of love and time and endurance and possibility, in a most singular key." ―Gish Jen, author of Mona in the Promised Land and Thank You, Mr. Nixon

"The first time I ever heard Katherine Vaz read, I remember thinking, Who is this sorceress? as she made me cry in public. Now we have a new novel from her, and the magic has expanded." ―Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night

"Vaz's work is gorgeous at every level―singing sentences and pull-you-in plot. She is the real thing, an American treasure." ―Tayari Jones, New York Times bestselling author of An American Marriage

"Katherine Vaz offers us a story of discovery, loss, and the fragile but unwavering bonds of love that endure despite it all. This epic saga confirms her as one of our best writers." ―Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King, shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize

"Since the publication of her first novel, Saudade, Katherine Vaz has stood out as a Portuguese American writer uniquely capable of expressing the inchoate longing of the Portuguese soul. Now, with Above the Salt, she becomes the pre-eminent voice of those of us who are part of the vast Portuguese diaspora with this visionary, immigrants' tale told through her rueful, hallucinogenic prose." ―Michael Rezendes, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist

This information about Above the Salt was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

Write your own review

Joyce M. (Arlington, VA)

Exceptional novel highly recommended!
Above the Salt is a wonderful novel about Portuguese immigrants who migrated to America in the mid-19th century for a better life. It is an incredible love story that is full of commitment, romance, and respect for community. It is historical fiction based on a real person, John Alves, and incorporates many actual events such as Lincoln's presidency, the Civil War, racial prejudice, inventions, the earthquake in San Francisco, the plague in early the early 20th Century, and the beginning of World War I.

The manner in which the book is written, told mostly through the eyes of Mary and John, enables the reader to be in their shoes. All of the historical references serve as background information, giving the reader a sense of what ordinary people were going through on a daily basis during challenging times. The intense descriptive prose makes it easy to visualize and feel what the various characters were experiencing. Considering all the "ups and downs" in the story, I'm glad the author ended the book way she did.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It reminded me of Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese which I also really liked and look forward to reading his current novel. However, this book is even better! I give it 6 stars!!

Marie W. (Prescott, AZ)

Many Stories in One
This novel holds many stories. Stories of nature, love and loss, of old and new lands. Stories of slavery and war, poverty and wealth, loyalty and betrayal. The book is timely. Immigrants sail to America, fleeing religious war on the Portuguese island of Madeira. It has a magical quality, at times verging on the supernatural, as some events happen almost- but not quite- out of the realm of the possible.

The book is lyrical. The senses play a major role without detracting from the story. It is rich and many-layered, but not difficult to follow the characters or storyline. The characters feel real. At times I wanted to warn or admonish them for their decisions, just as I would in real life.

The book is set in the 1800's. The writing is gorgeous, the times and places vividly portrayed. The story could be described as a saga of lives coming together and apart, striving to reconcile their heart's desire with sober, sometimes cruel, reality.

If I have one criticism it would be that at times the author waxes lyrical when I would have preferred prose to poetry. But I truly enjoyed this novel, and I think book clubs with serious readers would find a lot to like and discuss.

Catherine O. (Altavista, VA)

Epic Novel
Above the Salt is unlike any novel I have ever read. The author creates a tale that follows the main characters across oceans and continents, through wars and disasters. The writing style was a bit difficult at first, but soon became almost like a lullaby with its vivid descriptions and lyrical rhythms. The world inside this novel is so encompassing that even after over 400 pages, I was sad to turn the last page. This is a magical tale that will stay with me. I believe that Above the Salt will appeal to anyone who likes fiction full of engaging characters, wound through with accurate historical details, and an unpredictable but believable plot.

Francine E. (Shirley, NY)

The Pursuit of Love
On the Portuguese island of Madeira, in the year 1840, five year old John Alves starved in jail alongside his mother, Serafina. She was a Presbyterian who refused to denounce her faith. "Music would feed them, they would feast upon sounds...".

Augusto Freitas, a Catholic, led the protest to free John. Augusto was head gardener of a Botanical Garden owned by aristocrats. He lovingly cared for the plants and was devoted to his daughter, Maria.

Sparks of friendship ignited between John and Maria, however, contact was lost when unrest between Catholics and Protestants caused each family, separately, to seek refuge in America.

Maria had a gift for Madeiran needlepoint work. "Maria plies threads..." She and her father cultivated plants. "On days dedicated to the trees, he wears a bowtie, because in Portuguese it is called a butterfly and the trees appreciate that...he grows a shrub with glossy dark pointed leaves and red berries...the miracle-berry or miracle-fruit plant." The father-daughter team would try to transplant the miracle shrubs in America.

New beginnings in Springfield, Illinois. John Alves studied sign language. He worked on his Sound Machine. "If only the Sound Machine could capture the gestures and swaying of his students and let the music be felt through the floor so deafness is not a prison...they would feast upon sounds...music would feed them...the melody of birds...to my listening ears all nature sings...Men are studying about capturing sounds...".

Augusto Freitas was a "maestro" of plants with a specialty in grafting. He was employed as head gardener on Edward Moore's estate. Edward's motto was "A WISHBONE ain't as likely to get ye as far as a BACKBONE." Augusto and Maria, worked side by side, trying to coax the transplant to root in this foreign soil. Success as master botanists would not entitle them to truly mix with Edward and his inner circle. They would always be viewed as "below the salt".

"Above the Salt" by Katherine Vaz is ultimately about the ebb and flow of love. Is love enough? Perhaps not, when hindrances were religious or societal. The outbreak of the Civil War compounded the obstacles and added the dimension of the plight of soldiers on both sides of the conflict in this all encompassing work of historical fiction. Altered communications and betrayals created twists and turns that were heartwrenching, if a tad soap opera-like. Highly recommended.

Thank you Flatiron Books and BookBrowse for the print ARC in exchange for an honest review.


Above The Salt
An absorbing and engaging historical fiction covering multiple historic events. First, the Portuguese anti-Protestant movement on the island of Madeira that provides the back setting of the two main characters, John Alves and Mary (Maria) Freitas, who by chance meet and a make lasting connection, but both must flee the country to America. Thus, the premise of the plot is set, will they meet again? The reader follows the life adventures of all the characters, especially John as an American soldier and inventor working with Thomas Edison and Mary as the obedient wife of Edward, a wealthy businessman, and her work with her father, a famous botanist, plus her passion for fabric design, but many others as well. Not an easy read because of the multitude of storylines, subplots that one must follow, internal narratives and interactions between the characters, but it is essential for the plot development, and so that the reader can identify more readily with and feel for the characters, especially John and Mary, their supporters and enemies, and some famous people, including not only Thomas Edison but also Abraham Lincoln. These plot twists give the reader hope and wonderment of the destiny of characters during the other historic events the author interweaves so well: the American Civil War, the San Francisco earthquake, and other, more minor ones as well. What are their secrets for survival? Is it only marriage for Mary, and being a teacher for the deaf for John, and where and who will provide them support, and who must they support? Yes, John and Mary maintain contact, although not always successfully, but do they meet again and if so, is there a reason and who would orchestrate it? Overall, a highly recommended read, one which the reader receives a different understanding of historic events and some people’s contribution and view of these.

Linda Z. (Melville, NY)

An Amazing Historical Fiction Novel
Katherine Vaz, the author of "Above the Salt," has written a captivating, poignant, and memorable novel. The genres for this novel are Historical Fiction, Romance, Civil War, and Fiction. Katherine Vaz puts a magical feel in her prose, and this well-written story vividly describes the scenery, landscape, plot, and colorful and dramatic characters. John Alves and Mary Freitas are Portuguese refugees from childhood to late adulthood. Much of the background history deals with Catholics and Protestants friction and the time before, during, and after the Civil War. John spent part of his childhood with his mother, a Protestant martyr, in a jail in Madeira. John spent his young life in poverty and met Mary Freitas, an adopted daughter of a famous Botanist. As conflict and war between the two religions intensifies, both find themselves headed to America at different times. John becomes an educator for deaf students and experiments with ways to improve the student's learning mode. Mary and her father bring some "magical" plants to the United States and work as gardeners for Edward Moore, a wealthy landowner. Edward does help Mary with her business and would like to be engaged to her. Mary has not forgotten John Alves. When they do meet again, many things have changed. Some people are jealous and cause betrayal. The Start of the Civil War complicates the relationships. I appreciate how the author discusses the tragedies of the Civil War, the brutality, and the cost of lives. There were twists and turns and some unexpected and emotional surprises. I love the poetic images the author describes of nature and the symbolism of the characters. I highly recommend this thought-provoking and heartfelt novel to other readers. I found much of the background educational and became aware of some things I didn't know.
I look forward to reading more books from this author.

...6 more reader reviews

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Author Information

Katherine Vaz

Katherine Vaz, a former Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of the novels Saudade, on the Discover Great New Writers list with Barnes & Noble, and Mariana, in six languages and optioned by Harrison Productions. Her collection Fado & Other Stories won a Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and Our Lady of the Artichokes & Other Portuguese-American Stories received a Prairie Schooner Book Award. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of magazines, including Tin House, BOMB, Antioch Review, Iowa Review, The Common, Narrative, Ninth Letter, and Glimmer Train. She is the first Portuguese-American to have her work recorded for the Archives of the Library of Congress (Hispanic Division).

More Author Information

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

More Recommendations

Readers Also Browsed . . .

more historical fiction...

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

BookBrowse Sale!

Join BookBrowse and discover exceptional books for just $3/mth!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: The Fraud
    The Fraud
    by Zadie Smith
    In a recent article for The New Yorker, Zadie Smith joked that she moved away from London, her ...
  • Book Jacket: Wasteland
    by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
    Globally, we generate more than 2 billion tons of household waste every year. That annual total ...
  • Book Jacket: Disobedient
    by Elizabeth Fremantle
    Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi led a successful career as an artist throughout the ...
  • Book Jacket: Valiant Women
    Valiant Women
    by Lena S. Andrews
    When Peggy Carter first appeared on the screen in Marvel's Captain America, my reaction was, "Oh, ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
Fair Rosaline
by Natasha Solomons
A subversive, powerful untelling of Romeo and Juliet by New York Times bestselling author Natasha Solomons.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    All You Have to Do Is Call
    by Kerri Maher

    An inspiring novel based on the true story of the Jane Collective and the brave women who fought for our right to choose.

  • Book Jacket

    The September House
    by Carissa Orlando

    A dream home becomes a haunted nightmare in this compulsively readable, twisty, and layered debut novel.

Win This Book
Win Moscow X

25 Copies to Give Away!

A daring CIA operation threatens chaos in the Kremlin. But can Langley trust the Russian at its center?



Solve this clue:

A M I A Terrible T T W

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.