I finally got to read Ilie Ruby’s second novel, The Salt God’s Daughter! It was released a few weeks ago and since Ilie used my name for one of the characters, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy and see what “Dagmar Brownstein” is up to. I wish she would have kept Bleasdale and not changed it the last minute :)
After reading Ilie’s first novel, The Language of Trees, I knew I would enjoy her second. It already hit #1 on Amazon Women’s Fiction list — and I get why.
The prologue opens with such stunning writing, just reading that made me a better writer. And the main thing I kept thinking while reading this book: “I’m so appreciative of the kind of childhood I had, and the childhood my son is having.”
I had no worries compared to the characters in The Salt God’s Daughter. Ilie adopted three older kids from Ethiopia, and I have a feeling that same appreciation for all the things we have in our life had something to do with that decision.
Set in Long Beach, California, beginning in the 1970s, The Salt God’s Daughter follows three generations of women who share something unique — something magical and untamed that makes them unmistakably different from others. Their world is teeming with ancestral stories and exotic folklore.
Diana Gold raises her two daughters on the road, charting their course according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Her daughters — Ruthie and Dolly — are often homeless and on their own, fiercely protective of each other while running wild, and unaware of how far they have drifted from traditional society.
They are raised in the back of their mother’s station wagon and after her death in an old retirement home on the ocean, a place where the residents run with half-packed suitcases into the ocean at night and love comes in the most mysterious of places — perhaps it even walks right out of the ocean in the form of a man.
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’s daughter is born with a secret that will challenge her ties to the women in her family, and to the ocean. Bullied by her peers, she finds solace in the ocean and embarks on the search for the father, who might know the true source of her gifts and her secrets.
The Salt God’s Daughter examines the tremulous bonds between sisters and the enduring power of maternal love — a magical tale that presents three generations of extraordinary women who fight to overcome limitations and affirm their places in a world that’s often hostile to those who are different.
One of the themes is the feeling of being “motherless” even when your mother is there. It’s also about creating a family when you don’t have one of your own. But Ilie shows this in such a lovely way that it feels as if you are looking through a window into a world that is both magical and heartbreaking, at times.
I liked the book so much, I asked Ilie to answer some questions for me. She was kind enough to accept.
Dagmar: I really loved the way you drew the characters of the mother and daughter in the book. What were you hoping to show through the mother-daughter bond?
Ilie: The mother-daughter bond is so incredibly complex. It’s so primal in some ways, regardless of how the relationship evolves. I think daughters always feel that need and desire for a sort of maternal connection — though we don’t always find it in our families.
I know from my own childhood that motherhood is not easy. When we become mothers ourselves, we can understand just a little bit more about what our mothers went through. And so my characters Ruthie and Dolly grow up mothering their mother. Though this empowers them, it also presents challenges. Because they have grown up taking care of a parent, they have to learn self-care as adults because they’ve been raised to put others’ needs before their own.
Dagmar: How did growing up in the 70s and 80s inform you and the challenges you hoped to bring up in the book?
Ilie: That was such an exciting and challenging time for women — the riptide of feminism, in which the expectations and roles changed, and the landscape shifted. Many women felt ashamed that they weren’t perfect mothers and struggled with secret addictions and the like. There was a real pressure on mothers to be perfect. My mother was never taught to support two little girls on her own, and yet I was raised as a feminist. Through three generations of women in the book, I trace the way that each generation has dealt with feminism, and how they each pass down their stories to their daughters.
This was also a time when women were still demonized for their sexuality and there was a double-edged sword at work. While the characters in the story search for love, are almost possessed by the desire for romantic love, they meet with sometimes beautiful but often brutal tragedies. How they transcend these things with strength and ultimately with self-acceptance is at the heart of this book. Through Ruthie’s character, I hoped to show how that we can create new stories. Second chances are real, viable things.
Dagmar: Motherhood is complex and always changing. But through your story, you also show the struggles and joys of of daughterhood. Why did you decide to show this?
Ilie: You never lose your identity as a daughter, even when you are a mother. I’m a mother to three, two of whom are girls, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t remember my own experiences and feelings as a daughter, especially as I’m guiding my girls. I’m always thinking about my own mother, how she handled things, how I’m handling things, as I work to raise girls who know their beauty and their strength.
Through this book, I wanted to illuminate the way the mother-daughter bond changes through time, across generations, and through the years, and the way that love transcends most things, but not all. Mostly, I wanted to show not only the secret shadows of motherhood but the beautiful times as well, the times that make you smile when you think of them.
Ilie’s first novel is amazing, and she topped that with her second novel. You don’t have to have a sister to appreciate it — trust me, you will love it. It’s an incredible story of magical folklore and female resilience. And the perfect read to curl up with on long fall and winter days.