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A Journey of Bravery and Broken Hearts - an Editorial Review of "Salt of the Earth"

Book Blurb:

Based on true events, a forgotten story of courage, conviction and love.

1917: Europe is on the cusp of seismic change. In the Alpine village of St Niklaus, the war seems far away. Yet everyone is fighting a personal battle.

In the shadow of a mountain, 14-year-old Seraphine helps Mama manage the farm while Papa defends Swiss borders. She dreams of seeing the world. After the war.

A young medical graduate arrives in the valley. Under the patronage of a local doctor, he puts his faith in a revolutionary idea. He is determined to influence the world. After the war.

Dr Bayard cannot wait until after the war. In the most beautiful place on earth, people still suffer from a centuries-old affliction. Armed with a theory, two sacks of salt and a mule, Bayard climbs a mountain, intent on treating one tiny village.

The paths of two unlikely young people cross in turbulent times – against the backdrop of one country doctor's fight against folklore, prejudice and false pride.

Salt of the Earth is a journey of bravery and broken hearts following their call. A quest for love and healing in the face of precarious destiny.

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Author Bio:

JJ Marsh is the author of The Beatrice Stubbs series, featured in The Guardian Readers’ Recommend and The Bookseller’s Editor’s Choice

Jill is:

• A founder member of Triskele Books, an award-winning author collective founded in 2011

• Swiss Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors

• Co-editor of The Woolf, Zürich’s literary ezine and writers’ workshop

• Reviewer for Bookmuse, the readers’ site with a difference

She lives in Switzerland with her husband and three pugs, and in an attic overlooking a cemetery, she writes.

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Editorial Review:

"Salt of the Earth" by JJ Marsh is sprawling, intricate, and unfolds against the backdrop of a Switzerland grappling with post-World War I upheavals. Marsh deftly weaves together Seraphine and Bastian’s lives, navigating the delicate nuances of family, love, and societal expectations. This is a story with a strong historical setting, an engaging plot, and an unusually vivid, nuanced portrayal of its characters.

The story really begins with eighteen year old Clothilde, a woman whose journey encapsulates the complexities of familial ties and societal expectations. From the initial revelation of her unplanned pregnancy to the subsequent family discussions and confrontations, Clothilde emerges as a resilient, stubborn figure, and a compelling personality despite all the challenges that life has thrown her way. By all accounts, she has had a rather privileged youth, yet her choices take her down a much harsher road. Marsh adeptly captures the layers of her character, allowing readers to witness her struggles, desires, and the formidable strength that propels her through adversity.

All the air sucked out of Seraphine’s lungs. School was her sanctuary, a safe haven and the only time she could breathe. She prayed every night to be allowed to take the bus to St. Niklaus and join her classmates. Her prayer was instantly contradicted by another: her wish to protect her brothers and support her mother. Her salvation would be her family’s destruction. An impossible conundrum, but now it seemed the decision was no longer theirs to make.”

As we delve into the everyday lives of the characters, the rustic charm of the Swiss setting comes alive. From Seraphine's morning routine in the Alpine village to Bastian's experiences in Zürich during World War I, Marsh masterfully captures the essence of time and place. The vivid descriptions of the Dada movement in Cabaret Voltaire and the austere December of 1916 evoke a tangible sense of the era's cultural and historical milieu.

Her daughter, Seraphine, is arguably the novel's central figure, and is a lens through which readers explore the intricate landscape of the Alpine village. Her internal conflict, vividly depicted during a description of her morning routine, serves as a poignant exploration of the choices faced by women in a society marked by tradition and change. As her story unfolds, Seraphine's resilience, from grappling with family obligations to her commitment to Dr. Bayard's medical experiments, paints her as a multifaceted protagonist navigating the complexities of her time.

Bastian, on the other hand, is a charismatic and transformative character, who undergoes an evolution that serves as the novel's backbone. Marsh meticulously peels back the layers of Bastian's personality, from his experiences in Zürich during World War I to his positive transformation in Herisau. The interplay between his personal growth, relationships with Julius, Flora, and Frau Bayard, and his dedication to medical innovation provides readers with a fascinating character arc. From the bohemian artistic circles in Zürich to the intimate dynamics of small-town life in Herisau, Bastian's evolution is portrayed with nuance and depth.

The supporting cast in "Salt of the Earth" is equally robust, contributing to the novel's depth and authenticity. Margot's enduring support for Clothilde and her family, Bastian's friends, and Frau Bayard's pivotal influence on Seraphine's life create a dynamic interplay of relationships that feel organic and authentic. Even tertiary characters, like Anton and Henri, are crafted with enough detail to evoke empathy and contribute to the emotional resonance of the story.

The novel does an excellent job of presenting characters whose actions and decisions are not formulaic but rooted in the intricacies of their personalities. Whether it's Clothilde's resilience, Seraphine's grit and perseverance, or Bastian's transformative journey, each character feels authentic and human. Marsh skillfully captures the subtleties of their emotions, making them relatable and engaging.

Do not dismiss Zürich, young man. It is a city of learning, thought and ideas, some pompous and farcical, others earnest and naïve. Know your principles. Listen and educate yourself. Do not, and by this I mean never, succumb to the wildest fringes of immature ideology. You are a scientist and any theory always requires proof.”

Marsh seamlessly integrates historical and societal themes into the characters' lives, allowing readers to witness their responses to the Oltener AktionsKomitee's protests, the evolving political landscape, and Dr. Bayard's medical innovations. This integration elevates the characters; they become conduits for exploring the broader shifts and challenges of their time.

The exploration of societal issues during the aftermath of World War I adds an interesting sense of context to the story. Marsh adeptly explores themes of social injustice, workers' rights, and the delicate balance between government authority and the will of the working class. The depiction of the protest strikes and the subsequent government ultimatum paints a vivid picture of the socio-political landscape.

Another major plot arc is an exploration of a groundbreaking development that mirrors the societal and scientific shifts of the time — the emergence of iodine as a revolutionary treatment. The development of iodine as a healing elixir weaves through the lives of the characters, impacting not only their personal narratives but also reflecting the broader advancements and challenges of the era.

Bastian's journey, initially rooted in his experiences during World War I, takes a transformative turn with his immersion in Dr. Bayard's medical initiatives. The story traces Bastian's involvement in the Dada movement in Zürich, his romantic misfortunes, and his subsequent embrace of a new opportunity with Dr. Bayard. The Winter 1916 chapter marks a crucial juncture, where Bastian's heartbreak becomes the catalyst for his entry into the realm of medical research.

The iodine treatment, a vital aspect of the characters' lives, becomes a symbol of progress and hope. Seraphine's decision to become a test patient, driven by a desire to find a solution for her family's health issues, marks a personal commitment to the potential of iodine as a healing agent. Bastian's dedication to medical research, Dr. Bayard's vision of eradicating goitre and cretinism, and the collaborative efforts underscore the significance of iodine as a catalyst for positive change.

In essence, the development of iodine as a treatment in "Salt of the Earth" is a dynamic, interconnected narrative thread that mirrors the transformative journey of the characters. Marsh seamlessly integrates scientific progress with personal growth, creating a story where the quest for healing becomes a metaphor for the larger societal shifts of the post-war era. As iodine emerges as a beacon of hope, it leaves an indelible mark on the characters and the story, symbolizing the resilience and potential for positive change in a world grappling with the aftermath of war.

As Bastian's path intersects with Seraphine's, Marsh crafts a poignant narrative arc that explores love, loss, and the endurance of the human spirit. The author beautifully interlaces the threads of the characters' lives, bringing about unexpected connections and resolutions that feel satisfying and organic.

Through a nuanced exploration of interconnected lives, the novel explores the triumphs and tribulations of the human experience. Marsh's recounting of a medical breakthrough, coupled with the authenticity of the characters, makes this novel a compelling and immersive read. This stands as a literary achievement that resonates with readers on multiple levels.


“Salt of the Earth” by JJ Marsh receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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