I know mothers like Diana Gold, the beautiful, narcissistic, and ultimately tragic mother at the center of Ilie Ruby's poetic new novel, The Salt God's Daughter. They're the anti-mother -- women constantly testing a child's loyalty by threatening abandonment and demanding the unconditional love of which they themselves are incapable. Much of The Salt God's Daughter is told from the point of view of Ruthie, a daughter forever trying to please a mother like Diana.
I love Ruthie. I was Ruthie and that is only one of myriad reasons I want to press Ruby's novel into the hands of every woman that I know. Yes, every woman, because this is a book that calls to women to gather and witness. There is a piece of every woman's life story in this book. But above all this is a book that glows like the moonstone that a much older woman gives to Ruthie for good luck.
Luck, mazal, is what Ruthie and Dolly and Diana have run out of much the same way their creaky station wagon has run out of gas on a desert highway. It is the 1970s and this improbable love story of womanhood, myth and creation leads the trio to settle down in a small motel in Long Beach, Calif. The hotel is by the sea and calls up creation stories of Genesis and Selkie (Irish) mythology. A Friday night in this book is frequently celebrated as Erev Shabbat replete with a visit from the Shechina -- the female manifestation of God's spirit.
In a recent interview, Ruby, who lives in Concord, explained that she was drawn to Selkie myths through her mother, a folk singer who played a song about shape shifters and longing for a man. In the version Ruby's mother sang, a woman waited for a man to save her. "The patriarchal patterning and power structure of the song always bothered me," Ruby said. "In The Salt God's Daughter, I reimagined the myth to embody more of my values."
Although Ruby's values were shaped by the conservative and reform movements of her childhood, she credits her observantly Jewish grandparents with influencing her Jewish identity. "Had it not been for my grandparents, particularly my grandmother Ruthie for whom I named my main character," she noted, "I wouldn't have known what the meaning of reverence was."
Ruby is the mother of three school-age children adopted from Ethiopia and grew up in the '70s and '80s during what she described as "the riptide of feminism" -- a wave that her mother found herself in alone with two little girls to raise." Like many women of her mother's generation Ruby observed that her mother was brought up to get married and have children. "Feminism shifted," Ruby said, "And I watched my mother get caught up in this tornado. Even as a child I tried to jump in and fix everything."
Feminism is one of the lively subtexts running throughout The Salt God's Daughter. Feminism in all of its difficult contexts is front and center as Ruthie spends much of her young life recovering from date rape -- an experience that marginalizes her and earns her an unfounded reputation as promiscuous.
But Ruthie takes back her reputation Ruby noted:
The story I tell is about being a girl navigating various rites of passage. Ruthie eventually falls in love with a man of the sea -- a man who appears to walk out of the water wearing jeans, but is actually the bridge between the animal and human worlds. He offers a transcendental knowledge about what is most primal whether that is sexuality, the mother-child bond or creation itself.
The timing of the book could not be more prescient for Ruby.
"I'm so grateful the book came out in 2012 when we're grappling with terms like 'legitimate rape' entering the lexicon. The fallacy of romantic rape was perpetuated in the '70s and '80s in movies like Saturday Night Fever and shows like General Hospital."
Ruby brought her narrative into the present by also addressing bullying through Ruthie's daughter Naida. Throughout her childhood children make fun of Naida's webbed foot and call her the "Frog Witch." As her research progressed, Ruby was deeply disconcerted by the number of bully-related suicides she read about -- many of them girls who were demonized for their sexuality. "As a fiction writer and mother I wanted to bring this tragic state of affairs to readers. And I wanted to make my point through a magical realist vernacular. Since the book's publication I've received dozens of letters from women who have been date raped."
In a sense this book is dedicated to the women who were silenced by violence and saved by the same inner strength that Ruthie and even her misguided mother marshaled to survive. "I didn't want [The Salt God's Daughter] to be an easy book," Ruby said.
Indeed, Ruby has written a complicated, multi-layered work that shifts shapes to bridge the relationship between tragedy and redemption.
This interview has been edited by the author and interviewee for clarity. For more information on Ruby's research, please see Ruby's interview with Leora Tanenbaum here.