The Salt God's Daughter
By Ilie Ruby
Soft Skull Press, 2012
Reviewed by Amy Hatvany
Set in Long Beach, California, and beginning in the 1970s, The Salt God's Daughter, Ilie Ruby’s luxurious and poetic second novel, follows three generations of extraordinary women who share something magical and untamed, something that makes them unmistakably different from others. Theirs is a world teeming with ancestral stories, exotic folklore, and inherited memory.
Meet Diana Gold, who raises her two daughters on the road, charting their course according to an imagined map of secrets drawn from the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Meet her daughters, Ruthie and Dolly, who live in the back of their mother’s station wagon and later in an old motel turned retirement home by the ocean. Ruthie and Dolly are caught in the wilds of this enchanted landscape, fiercely protective of each other and unaware of how far they have drifted from traditional society. But when they are suddenly forced to strike out on their own, and Ruthie becomes the victim of a sexual assault, they are caught in the riptide of a culture that both demonizes and glorifies female sexuality. Years later, Ruthie gives birth to a daughter, a girl born with a secret that will challenge her ties to the women in her family, and to the ocean.
As I climbed into the first pages of The Salt God's Daughter, I felt the sensation of an ocean wave rushing over me. The beauty of Ruby’s language, the rich, languid emotion behind each word lulled me further into Ruthie and Dolly’s world, where they cling to each other to navigate their mother’s impulsivity and sometimes dangerous behavior. My heart ached for these two sisters. I rooted for them – and I wanted to reach right in to the book and shake some sense into Diana. And yet there is love here. Ruby deftly handles the complicated tendrils of emotion that make up a daughter’s relationship with the woman who brings her into the world. As Graham, the mysterious man with whom Ruthie falls in love and has a child, aptly points out years later: “All mothers will fail their daughters…. Because a mother is her daughter’s first love.”
Infused with magical realism and laced with potent messages about motherhood, sisterhood, and the very real danger of childhood bullying, The Salt God's Daughter is an important novel for any woman who wants to better understand her relationships with others and with the world itself. One of my favorite passages is told early in the story from Ruthie’s viewpoint:
Since we were all made from the same material, I imagined there was a piece of moon and earth in us. Everything was, in effect, connected to everything else. It followed, then, that men and women, adults and children, were more connected than we realized. I didn’t understand why there was always so much distance.
Ruby explores this sense of connectedness on every page – through the relationships she portrays, through Celtic myth, through her hypnotic, lyrical prose. This is not a book to devour whole in an afternoon. Its thoughtfulness, its purity and richness of spirit is something that as a reader, I wanted to read slowly so I wouldn’t miss a single note.