The Salt God’s Daughter, Ilie Ruby’s latest novel, is set in the 1970s in Long Beach, California, on the frigid, mysterious and unassuming Pacific Ocean. With remarkable diction and cadence, Ruby has skilfully sculpted an epic tale about the lives of three generations of women and written it with such eloquence, the pages often sang to me, leaving me salt-drenched, feeling protected by fuchsia bougainvilleas, and in a state of breathlessness. From the first sentence, this book careens the reader through a whirling, magical voyage into the color and richness of Scottish myth and Jewish mysticism. Suddenly, we find ourselves considering anew the shifting moons, eclipses of the sun, changing tides, cloud formations, selkies, “groatie buckies,” barnacles and a plethora of other animal and plant life in and around the water.
The story begins with Diane, a young single mother to two daughters, Ruthie and Dolly, who struggles with drinking and depression. They live in a station wagon, are often hungry, miss school, and endure the disconnectedness of that reality. With life like this, Ruthie and Dolly are often at the mercy of their mother’s moods and health, and learn early to tend to and comfort her. They begin their rite of passage early in life. “Dolly and I had time on our hands to fantasize and create, to conjure and compose, to experiment and dramatize, to create a world wholly experienced in the imagination. We’d frequent the pier, our bare feet slapping the wood slats as we played chasing games ….”
Years pass and daughters become mothers. Mothers become grandmothers. The sisters change individually, but stay solid in the tight bonds between them. Like everyone, however, they are destined to seek out a lover and a partner, like their great grandparents, Ruth and Daniel, found in each other for seventy years–as was the story Diane told the girls while she leaned on the car, smoking, and made them all feel hopeful. Achieving this goal meant accepting and loving themselves fully, before loving another. This is not easy. Both women must come to terms with their own mistakes, and the toll taken by errors or atrocities that were never theirs to bear. Loving themselves through those difficulties takes strength–especially after being traumatized, labeled ‘other,’ unworthy, or immoral by misguided, cruel peers and adults. Both find solace in the home, performing valuable work as caregivers to some of the women who nurtured them and doing everything possible to keep the family and its stories safe and intact.
While enchanting in its musicality and vivid imagery, this book is also gritty, evocative, and relevant to the cultural and socio-political climate in the United States and world today, especially in the area of sexual politics, predominantly rape and abortion. Reading and reviewing The Salt God’s Daughter has had a huge impact on my own life. Through Ruby’s voice, I rediscovered my own unheard and silenced cry in the dark from decades ago. It felt freeing to know that the loss of young girls’ lives to suicide–from bullying, another crime committed against them, landing on the wrong side of current sexual mores, or other oppressive rules and laws–has stimulated healing. In fact, I believe this work has released a groundswell of women’s energy and emboldened words, which resound right now like an echo in a canyon. I hope we will all find the courage to heed Sister Mary’s words: “Speak, Ruthie. As often and as loudly as you can. Keep speaking it,” she said. Therein lies the secret of The Salt God’s Daughter.
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