By Stephanie Ritenbaugh
“The Salt Line” by Holly Goddard Jones; G.P. Puntnam’s Sons (400 pages, $26)
“The Salt Line” opens with a group of wealthy adventure tourists learning what exactly they’ll be facing when they venture beyond the vibrating wall meant to keep parasites at bay.
And beyond that wall — miner ticks. Not only do the ticks burrow under the skin to lay their eggs, a nasty enough idea, some ticks carry the fatal Shreve’s disease. Hence the scorched-earth barrier dubbed the “salt line.”
Although the story is firmly set as a tale of a dystopia, there are certainly familiar elements in the Holly Goddard Jones novel. Set in the southeastern United States sometime in the future, the country has been divided into zones behind the protective “salt lines,” but it’s still a social media-driven world and mobile devices are rarely out of reach. There are concerns about borders — not just about how to keep disease away, but also people who are trying to migrate between zones or from outside the walls. Socioeconomic anxiety abounds, whether on a small scale of a family or on a larger political scale between different zones.
Still, those with enough money can venture beyond the walls to see the natural world that has become rare inside the zones, out where cell signals can’t reach.
Among those signing up for the trip are a young woman, Edie, and her rock star boyfriend, Jesse; a tech wizard, Wes, and Marta, the middle-aged wife of a shady businessman.
The guide for the excursion, Andy, tells them why they need to take so many precautions against the ticks that will burrow under your skin. “By the time you feel the itching, the female miner tick has created a tiny cavity under your skin and settled into place … Within a few minutes, the female will start releasing eggs into the cavity … Over the next several hours, the area around the bite will erupt in hundreds of pustules … If you don’t scratch the pustules open yourself to try to sooth the itch, the miner ticks will eventually tear their way out.”
As the group comes together, it is revealed that many of its members have their own reasons to venture into the wilderness.
Those motivations become important when the tourists, clad in micro suits and hauling specialized camping gear to keep ticks away, are taken hostage by a group of outer-zone survivalists, delving deeper into this world and how others have eked out a living, some more successfully than others, on the opposite side of the country’s scorched-earth policy.
The town is comprised of people who forged a community in abandoned America. And they want to keep it safe.
Combining elements of sci-fi, thrillers and speculative fiction, “The Salt Line” is a page-turner. Goddard Jones, who is the author of “The Next Time You See Me” and the collection “Girl Trouble,” builds a believable world and generates tension effectively. The plot is action-driven, but an ensemble cast of characters keeps the story rooted in human emotions and motivations. For a story that starts out being about killer ticks, it offers much more.