The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby (Soft Skull Press; 352 pages; $25).
Ilie Ruby, the critically acclaimed author of The Language of Trees, counts among her influencers some big names like Isabel Allende and Alice Sebold. Reading her moving, hypnotic new novel The Salt God’s Daughter, I saw traces of both Allende and Sebold, as well as Alice Hoffmann. Ruby combines elements of mystery, fantasy, and magical realism to tell a moving story about three generations of women in Southern California. The Salt God’s Daughter is a beautifully told and seductive tale that lets Ruby show her amazing talent.
Ruby’s main character is Ruth, who, together with her older sister Dolly, struggles with an absent mother. Diana, their unconventional mother, obsesses over the moon cycles of her beloved Old Farmer’s Almanac and interprets the phases of the moon. They warn her of potential dangers or possible opportunities. Through the character of Diana, Ruby is able to imbue elements of Jewish mysticism into her story, making it richer and beguiling. With their mother inhabiting a world of her own, the sisters find themselves alone most of the time. Dolly and Ruth quickly learn to protect each other.
“We ran wild at night, effortless, boundless, under a blood red sky—to where and to what we couldn’t have known. We craved it, that someplace. We were two little girls, sisters, daughters with no mother, distrustful of the freedom we were given, knowing she shouldn’t have left,” Ruby writes. “We stole wrinkled leather sneakers that were two sizes too big, and wore them until they fit. We raced in the sand, fought in the dusk. We knew we were not invisible. We tightened belts around our stomachs at night….”
Despite their mother’s negligence, they love her and desperately long for her. “If I told you that I ached for a different mother, I’d be lying,” Ruth admits, “I ached for my own, every minute. As motherless daughters do.” When she is with them, they are a family.
Amazingly, the sisters have no idea their lives are unusual; they are isolated and insular. Their one link to the outside world is the soap opera General Hospital. When their mother dies, though, the girls face new challenges, as traditional society collides with their nontraditional, nomadic upbringing.
As the sisters grow older, each grapples with adversity, violence, and rape. Each sister must decide what to do with an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy. Violence against women, then, as well as lust and sexuality are just some of Ruby’s big themes. She does not shy away from the brutality of rape. The scene in which Ruth, a virgin, is raped is difficult to read, yet Ruby approaches the subject with realism, tact, and straightforwardness. Understandably, Ruth begins to search for a place where she can heal, where she can carve out a life that is all her own.
Ruth finds a place of stability at Wild Acres, an old hotel on the beach. There, among the fragrant and colorful bougainvillea, rising tides, sandy beach, and rough surf, Ruth makes her own kind of family with the elderly people who live there. She quickly finds a refuge in love, but this is not an average union. Ruby falls in love with a selkie.
The Salt God’s Daughter is strongest in its use of the traditional Scottish folkloric tale of the selkie, or seal wife. Ruth begins an affair with a mysterious fisherman who leaves salt in her bed and then leaves her for long periods of time. A daughter, Naida, is born from their intimacy.
Kids bully Naida and call her a “frog witch.” Naida is different and undeniably special. Watched over by three sea lions, dubbed the “sisters,” Naida swims like a fish and keeps a secret. For her, the ocean is a form of solace against the bullying and her difference. Naida, though, feels a deep sense of loss because of her absent father. She is sure he holds the key to her many gifts and determines she will find him. Her journey will have lasting consequences, and the answers she seeks may hurt more than they heal.
Ruby does not portray men in the best light in this story. Men leave; men abuse; men lie; men cheat; men rape; and even boys bully and beat up little girls. The only man of any worth in The Salt God’s Daughter is Mr. Taki, a resident of Wild Acres and former friend of Diana’s, who may or may not be Dolly’s father. Yet, women are at the heart of this story, particularly one woman: Ruth. Ruth must overcome loss and heartache to raise Naida and create a home for herself and her daughter. Ruth must choose to be a beacon in the storm for her daughter.
The bond between mothers and daughters is palpable in The Salt God’s Daughter. Even when Diana is absent, Ruth and Dolly still yearn for her. Her almanacs are a way for Diana to speak to her daughters and to her granddaughter even after her death. Ruby likewise does everything humanly possible to protect her daughter.
Ruby came up with the idea behind this story while reading about bullied girls. “I had been reading about four young girls who were bullied and who could no longer stand it,” she writes. “As I researched their stories, that number grew to ten girls. Then seventeen girls. There are more. I wrote their names out on a piece of paper on my desk, and I felt a strong sense of purpose. There was no way I was not going to tell this story.” Her aim was not only to tell a “beautiful story, but to give voice to every girl who has ever been tested—who has been called out, named, bullied, gossiped about. And who has found the strength to stand up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”
The Salt God’s Daughter is full of magic and enchantment, violence and tragedy, fantasy and magical realism, discovery and survival. Like an undertow, The Salt God’s Daughter pulls the reader in. Before one realizes, she is far from shore. Fear not, dear reader. Let the current pull you under. Ruby’s story is a tale to drown in.