The Orphan of Salt Winds


Reviewed by Alexa Rosenberg

The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks, Portland, Oregon. Tin House Press, 293 pages, $15.96

You are never, ever to set foot in the marsh. You could sink, or drown, or get swept out to sea by the tides. No matter what you do, do not step foot in the marsh. This is the first thing newly adopted orphan Virginia Wrathmell is told upon arriving in her new home of Salt Winds, a lonely house built on the edge of Tollbury Marsh. 

This novel follows Virginia between her time arriving at her new home as a little girl plus the year following and present-day Virginia preparing for her departure into the marsh. Her check list of goodbyes gets thrown off, however, when a stranger with a ghost-like link to her past arrives on her doorstep in the middle of a snowstorm, digging for answers that Virginia does not want to supply. What happens next though, could be the link to helping Virginia heal the wounds that happened at Salt Winds seventy-five years ago. But ghosts and long-forgotten memories are hard to pack into a box, or coat pockets, and put away, especially when she only has 24 hours to do it. 

Reading along in the brain of Virginia Wrathmell as a child and as a cynical adult is reminiscent of a British-twist on a southern gothic mixed with a dramatic World War Two mystery-drama. The demure but mystified setting that is Salt Winds and Tollbury Marsh creates a background for the colorful and complicated lives the characters lead. There are only a handful of them to keep track of, but every time you experience them you get drawn into their world and the way they view it and those around them. 

When Virginia’s adopted father Clem and unspoken favorite parent goes into the marsh after a fallen German airplane crashes, her life begins to spiral like the plane that had just crashed. That single event would stay with them like the smell of smoke stick on clothes after a fire. 

Elizabeth Brooks way of paralleling the arrival of new characters in Virginia’s old life with her new one creates layers of meaning that is only fully revealed towards the end of the books. Just as in real life, you can’t always tell who the bad guys and good guys are until you find yourself in too deep. I was drawn into the devastatingly beautiful way Virginia interacts with Lorna, her adoptive mother, after Clem disappears. There is an unspoken, soft treaty established between them when their new guest arrives and all of the events that follow. Lorna’s hard exterior begins to soften at the edges while the opposite happens to Virginia. In the two years that follow her adoption leads to Virginia forming a hard wall around her heart until the night she receives her sign. You root for and root against the main character all the way to the end. 

If you’re into reading novels such as Where the Crawdads Sing, Let Me Die in His Footsteps, or Code Name Verity than this will be the perfect interception between the three and others of a similar genre. The book left me wanting more: more to read, more to learn, and more time to spend with the characters. For the hours I spent reading the book, Salt Winds became my home and I was almost convinced I could hear the wind on the marsh or the curlew’s singing in the distance. 

As the debut novel of Elizabeth Brooks I definitely think she has set herself a high bar to reach with her next novel. Her writing in this novel hits at the complicated relationships between family members and how to balance selfish want and family duty all the while providing a deep mystery and uncertainty for how you think the book will end and how you want it to end, as I always find when reading books set during World War Two. This is would be a brilliant summer beach read, a I-need-to-escape-for-a-while read, or a take-me-away read. The Orphan of Salt Winds is a book for all those that want to reimagine life’s complexities through the eyes of a growing child trying to navigate life as slippery as the marsh she lives on.