Excerpt from The Book of Salt by Monique Truong, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Book of Salt

by Monique Truong

The Book of Salt
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2002, 272 pages
    Jun 2004, 272 pages

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When my Mesdames first began preparing for the journey, they had wanted to bring Basket and Pépé along with them. The SS Champlain gladly accommodated dogs and assorted pets, just as long as they were accompanied by a first-class owner. The problem, however, was America. No hotels or at least none on their itinerary would accept traveling companions of the four-legged kind. The discussion had been briefly tearful but above all brief. My Mesdames had in recent years become practical. Even the thought of their beloved poodle and Chihuahua languishing in Paris, whimpering, or, in the case of the Chihuahua, yapping, for many months if not years to come, even this could not postpone the journey home. There was certainly no love lost between me and those dogs, the poodle Basket especially. My Mesdames bought him in Paris at a dog show in the spring of 1929. Later that same year, I too joined the rue de Fleurus household. I have always suspected that it was the closeness of our arrivals that made this animal behave so badly toward me. Jealousy is instinctual, after all. Every morning, my Mesdames insisted on washing Basket in a solution of sulfur water. A cleaner dog could not have existed anywhere else. Visitors to the rue de Fleurus often stopped in midsentence to admire Basket's fur and its raw-veal shade of pink. At first, I thought it was the sulfur water that had altered the color of His Highness's curly white coat. But then I realized that he was simply losing his hair, that his sausage-casing skin had started to shine through, an embarrassing peep show no doubt produced by his morning baths. My Mesdames soon began "dressing" Basket in little capelike outfits whenever guests were around.

I could wash and dress myself, thank you. Though, like Basket, I too had a number of admirers. Well, maybe only one or two. Pépé the Chihuahua, on the other hand, was small and loathsome. He was hardly a dog, just all eyes and a wet little nose. Pépé should have had no admirers, but he, like Basket, was a fine example of how my Mesdames' affections were occasionally misplaced. Of course, my Mesdames asked me to accompany them. Imagine them extending an invitation to Basket and Pépé and not me. Never. We, remember, had been together for over half a decade by then. I had traveled with them everywhere, though in truth that only meant from Paris to their summer house in Bilignin. My Mesdames were both in their fifties by the time I found them. They had lost their wanderlust by then. A journey for them had come to mean an uneventful shuttle from one site of comfort to another, an automobile ride through the muted colors of the French countryside.

Ocean travel changed everything. My Mesdames began preparing for it months in advance. They placed orders for new dresses, gloves, and shoes. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was luxurious: waistcoats embroidered with flowers and several kinds of birds, traveling outfits in handsome tweeds with brown velvet trims and buttons, shoes identical except for the heels and the size. The larger pair made only a slight effort at a lift. They were schoolgirlish in their elevation but mannish in their proportion. The smaller pair aspired to greater but hardly dizzying heights. Both my Mesdames, remember, were very concerned about comfort.

"We'll take a train from Paris to Le Havre, where the SS Champlain will be docked. From there, the Atlantic will be our host for six to seven days, and then New York City will float into view. From New York, we'll head north to Massachusetts, then south to Maryland and Virginia, then west to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, California, all the way to the shores of the Pacific and then, maybe, back again." As my Mesdames mapped the proposed journey, the name of each city—New York, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco—was a sharp note of excitement rising from their otherwise atonal flats. Their voices especially quivered at the mention of the airplanes. They wanted to see their America from a true twentieth-century point of view, they told the photographers. Imagine, they said to each other, a flight of fancy was no longer just a figure of speech. They wondered about the cost of acquiring one for their very own, a secondhand plane of course. My Mesdames were still practical, after all.

Copyright © 2003 by Monique T. D. Truong. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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