The Salt God's Daughter

The Salt God's Daughter

by Ilie Ruby


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, September 25


Set in Long Beach, California, beginning in the 1970s, The Salt God’s Daughter follows Ruthie and her older sister Dolly as they struggle for survival in a place governed by an enchanted ocean and exotic folklore. Guided by a mother ruled by magical, elaborately-told stories of the full moons, which she draws from The Old Farmer's Almanac, the two girls are often homeless, often on their own, fiercely protective of each other, and unaware of how far they have drifted from traditional society as they carve a real life from their imagined stories.

Imbued with a traditional Scottish folktale and hints of Jewish mysticism, 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 transcend a world that is often hostile to those who are different.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619020023
Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Inc.
Publication date: 09/04/2012
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.18(d)

About the Author

Ilie Ruby grew up in Rochester, NY and lived in Long Beach, California, where she was a fifth grade teacher. She is the winner of the Edwin L. Moses Award for Fiction, chosen by T.C. Boyle; a Kerr Foundation Fiction Scholarship; and the Phi Kappa Phi Award for Creative Achievement in Fiction. She is also the winner of the Wesleyan Writer's Conference Davidoff Scholarship in Nonfiction and the Kemp Award for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship. She graduated from the Masters of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California where she held the position of fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology.

Read an Excerpt


Ruthie, 1972

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. We tore across dirt campgrounds where we slept, naked but for our mud boots, letting the wind shiver up across our bare chests. We stole bags of chips from the canteen on the pier. Our feet pounded the crushed oyster shells in seaside motel parking lots when we'd search for drinking water, and we let calluses thicken up our soles to withstand the hot desert sand, or dash over a highway of broken glass, wherever we'd been dropped. We scampered across the foggy cliffs that separated Pacific Coast Highway from the ocean in old ballet slippers, as nimble as two fairies, our long red hair whipping into tangles in the wind. We bumped up against the night, without stopping. 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 and bicycled unlit sidewalks and sometimes tucked up our knees and steered with no hands through the darkness. No one hit us. We believed we were unstoppable. We slept under sleeping bags, beneath trees, and pushed our backs against cliffs, our noses cold.

We waited for our mother to come back.

"Ruthie, do you miss her?" Dolly asked.

"No," I lied.

We talked of Cool Whip and ice cream, of warm apple crisp and salty Fritos. We dreamed of flying.

Then my mother came back. We'd crawl into our station wagon at night, trapped by her need for freedom, and then by her soap opera, General Hospital, which we watched on her portable television. Afterward, we listened to folk songs and Hebrew prayers as she'd strum a fat-bellied classical, knowing this meant that she was feeling fine, that she had acknowledged she had two little girls, whether she wanted us or not.

We used our fingernails to cut away ticks from our legs, and we cleaned up her empty bottles before she'd wake up. We bit at the skin around our nails, leaving it swollen and red.

If I told you that I ached for a different mother, I'd be lying. I ached for my own, every minute. As motherless daughters do.

She was our child. We didn't know anything different. Everyone knew a mother was a daughter's first love.

When she asked if we thought she was still beautiful, we said yes, because she was. We told the truth about the steely lightness of her eyes, how quickly they changed color with her emotions, from gray to blue, in parts. We lied when she asked if we thought she'd fall in love one day. We said yes.

It was as possible to miss someone who was right in front of you as it was to miss someone who had left. It was also possible to miss someone who had not yet been born. This I had learned. My mother had told us as much. We walked around craving everyone, even before they'd leave. We never thought it would end, our ache. Often, from the windows of my mother's speeding green Ford Country Squire, we shouted out the words to James Taylor ballads and motioned for truckers to honk on demand by pumping our fists up and down. We grew cocky, forgetting we were people who had been left.

We were already nomadic, and from the most primal of places, we had become hunters, always searching for someone or something we could lay claim to, hook ourselves onto, to quiet our trembling clamorous souls.

As long as she came back for us.

I HAVE FEW memories before I was six years old, but waking up hungry is one of them. In the white sky of a January night, under the glow of a Hunger Moon, I remember looking out of the rear compartment window of the wood-paneled station wagon my mother called Big Ugly. We had been kept warm at the campsite all night, body pressed to body, wet leaves under the orange sleeping bag.

We hadn't eaten since the night before. I knew this only because my job was to get rid of the trash. My mother had spent the evening grazing the tiny bottles of liquor on the flipped-down tailgate. Dolly and I had kicked around the canyon, making Jacob's ladder designs out of string and waiting for the portable television's batteries to die, which always brought on my mother's mood swings. Even as Dolly moved the television so as to get the best reception and I adjusted the antennae, my mother drank. She watched us now from the roof of the car as she paged through her Old Farmer's Almanac in search of the moon's clues, her legs tucked beneath her on a plaid blanket that spilled over the car windows, keeping it dark inside for us when we finally went to bed, keeping out the moonlight.

When I woke up, I thought Dolly was crying because of my mother's anger at the batteries, but it was the trees.

The trees were falling off the hillside.

We had never seen anything like it. I watched the blurred brushstrokes, the cascading sweeps of russet and umber tumbling beneath a blue-black sky. I had always clung to land, distrustful of the tide's obedience to an irrational moon. Now, even the land was giving way. Storms from one of the strongest El Niños in years lifted the top layer of earth like a fingernail, flicking it off, along with rocks and branches. Dolly had woken up first, and started screaming. She pointed to the river of mud rushing down the canyon toward us. Only months before, fire brought by the Santa Ana winds had cleared the hillside of most of the trees. Now that there was little to hold the earth in place, the winds ripped the charred remains from their roots, spilling them across our campsite. The roots had released easily, willing to be exposed after having been tugged at and battered for so long. I could not blame them.

"Dammit, where are my keys?" my mother said, climbing into the front seat. She skimmed her hand across the vinyl. "Where are those damn things?" Her hair spun in wild black tangles, along with her rage. Dolly and I scampered around the back, searching. My hunger turned to dust. I could not find my glasses.

"Hurry up, Mom! Will you get us out of here?" Dolly cried, as rain swept across the windshield in blustery sheets, smacking the glass with rocks. Patterns of flesh and green filled the windows. Dolly handed me my glasses. Clarity.

"My keys. What did you girls do with them?" my mother asked, as I climbed in front beside her. The river of mud was coming toward us.

January's Hunger Moon was supposed to keep us fed, or return my mother's lover to her. But it had not done either, so far. The moon was misbehaving, my mother said. Bad unpredictable weather followed the Child Theory of Planetary Creation. The moon was Earth's child, which meant that the moon's materials had originally spun off from the earth. The Hunger Moon had conspired, teasing the storms toward the Pacific coast of California, bringing heavy rains and torrential winds, not at all following what she had planned.

I kicked a pile of clothes aside and shook out my coat, reaching under the seat, feeling the sharp teeth of the keys.

"I found them!" I cried, certain this would make my mother love me.

She took the keys from me without a flicker of recognition. She pushed them into the ignition, and waited. Nothing. She pumped the gas three times and then flooded the engine. We started moving. "Faster. Keep driving, Mom. Don't stop," said Dolly.

"Be quiet," my mother whispered. "Please, just be quiet. If you're not quiet I don't know what I'll do." We drove off, barely able to see the full moon amid the darkness. This unforeseen storm had her rattled, threatening her mastery. My mother had been playing a trick on the world by surviving on her own with two little girls. Without a man. Without family or friends, to speak of. With only her Farmer's Almanac and the full moons to guide her, she would do it on her own. But this storm had caught her off guard, and to boot there was hunger, which always made her anxious.

I heard howling. I watched the gray Hunger Moon sneaking behind the San Gabriel Mountains. I wondered if it might be willing to help us find a safe place. She had told me such things were possible, and I believed that the reason we were stuck, why the moon hadn't cooperated, had something to do with me, my behavior. Not being good enough, brave enough, like my sister.

"We're not going to die," I whispered as I turned back to Dolly, noticing her hair, a deeper shade of red than mine, smeared straight across her wet cheeks.

As Big Ugly spun onto the slick highway and skidded to a stop, shattering the air with mud, I wanted to disappear from the aftermath of her lack of control, which I could feel. Disheveled tree roots, cracked rocks, broken bumpers, and shards of glass littered the road. People were being evacuated. I could sense my mother's anger filling the car as she weaved through fender-bender crashes, drove up beyond the curve of sky, and then, once out of sight, pulled off to the side in a quiet and dark patch of mud. She reached across my lap and pulled the door handle, opening my door. "Get out, Ruthie. Don't make me tell you twice." I hesitated, wondering if she would do this to me again. Why was it always me? She lit a cigarette and blew smoke out the window.

"Out. Get out," she said, hitting the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. I opened the door and got out. Standing in the rain, I watched her drive off, my hands balled into fists. My cheeks flushed, though I refused to cry, letting the rain soak my jean shorts and yellow tank top. I refused to bite my fingernails to the quick again. I looked around in the silence, wiping my glasses with the hem of my shirt. There was nothing but darkness and an occasional flicker of moonlight on the wet pavement. I stopped breathing, if only for a moment. I reached into my pocket and took out one of the smooth stones my mother had given me earlier. It felt warm in my palm. Somehow it anchored me.

There was that howling again.

I shivered, counting my heartbeats as I had learned to do. I wondered what it was about me that made her do this to me but never to Dolly. I stayed there for a minute, certain that my sister, who didn't care about being loved and who could look a person in the eye without flinching and tell them how it was, scared my mother a little. Dolly had said "motherfucker" to a park ranger once, when he ousted us from an illegal camping spot. My mother had pretended not to smile and told her to swear only in Yiddish.

My mother liked it, her courage.

Just keep breathing, I told myself. I imagined the fairies and gnomes that we had been talking about the day before, the ones in our books. The thought of them helped. I guided my breath, and I imagined a huge gnome reaching down to find me. There he was, grasping me with his big hands underneath my armpits. I stood on my tiptoes, my face held to the rain, lifting my arms up, imagining him pulling me up and out of danger. I opened my eyes once, staring into the spray of stars I imagined were there.

PEOPLE LIKE US, with no home to speak of, fell into the category of "in-betweeners," forced to weather the uncertainty of unknown lands, and thus, we were members of the community of eclipsed folk — fairies, gnomes, Finmen, water sprites, waterhorses, and other creatures that made themselves known only in shadows and could be found in our books, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and folklore dictionaries, stories she collected.

"There could be gnomes under the bridges of the 405 in Los Angeles," Dolly liked to tell me.

"That's magical thinking," I would reply, as if our entire lives weren't already guided by it.

My mother repeatedly adjusted the rearview mirror as we cased the Southern California back roads in search of work. Our Country Squire housed everything we needed — rolls of toilet paper, cans of soda, pieces of fruit, and the last frozen TV dinner, which we'd split, unheated.

Wherever we went, burning down one highway after another, she'd take us to job sites where we were expected to work. Strawberry picker. Housemaid. Envelope stuffer. Bread baker. Personal aide to the sick and infirm.

"There's nothing wrong with a fairy tale or two. Everything is useful. You need to know how to navigate, to see roads before they are built. Be creative. Girls, just keep your eyes open to the possibilities."

We memorized lines from great writers as my mother drove — Shakespeare, Thoreau, the Brothers Grimm, Judy Blume, Betty Friedan, all from the compartment of the station wagon as the windows filled with dust spun by the Santa Ana winds, or fogged up with morning dew.

There were too many possibilities, I thought, and yet never enough. We had no map. My mother navigated our life along the grid of intersecting weather patterns, moon names, and catastrophic events on General Hospital. The eclipsed folk, we speculated, liked to appear in the white spaces of the grids during the shifting times of twilight and daybreak, within the place between life and death, and most often, we would soon find, during the threshold years of adolescence, between child and adult.

It was reasonable to imagine that now and again, to make things bearable, Dolly and I would play our games, calling out fairies on the cliffs near the ocean and climbing in the canyons near the roads. My mother thought us clever when we spoke of gnome families and of waterhorses kneeling under Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier, after they'd swim out from their beds near the pilings. "Brava!" our mother would shout as we narrated the drive. She applauded us for adding some magic to our day and making sure that there was a bit of fun amid it all, our hunger, the moon, and its white empty skies.

THE ONLY THING I knew for sure from the backseat of our car was that if I pressed a can of Coke between my knees, I would not dwell on food. If this didn't work, the only thing left was to picture streams of light flashing across the stones where a waterhorse rested, licking the salt from its legs. Sometimes it helped; my mother was right.

"Who else watches the full moon like we do?" Dolly once asked my mother.

"Farmers do. Sailors and fishermen who need to rely on the ocean," said my mother. She said you had to know that which could save you, for it could probably also kill you. You had to know it better than anyone else, every inch of it.

I STOOD THERE in the rain, my arm muscles trembling under my yellow shirt as I kept my arms lifted high, waiting, promising myself I would stay like this until my mother came back for me.

Out of the ink spot in the distance, I saw two lights.

As they grew bigger, I knew I was being saved. My mother was coming back for me. She always came back eventually. The front lights glowed like two moons. I noticed the goose bumps on my arms for the first time.

"That'll teach you to be so proud," she said, as she opened the car door. "No, Ruthie. Stop looking at me like that. Do you think I could really forget you?" The front headlights illuminated the tiny threads of rain that slanted toward what I could now identify as cliffs. My stomach lurched. I climbed inside, and we drove back onto the highway, following the moonlight. I did not dare look at Dolly through my tears, nor she at me, as the wind spun bits of rock from the cliffs and the machinations of young girls into the waves.

"I have a secret," she said.

"What is it?"

"You'll have to wait. It's a surprise."

The deeply hidden flaw about me, the one that made my mother leave me and not Dolly, had not been found. But it was irrelevant now. It stopped mattering as soon as my sister reached over and squeezed my hand. We pushed on through the rain, driving against traffic, heading for the ocean, where my mother said no one in their right mind would be going, which meant there would be a place for people like us. No, no, no, I thought. You said we wouldn't sleep near the ocean. You promised. For years, I dreamed of drowning.

I dug my nails into my palms. I squeezed my eyes shut, but the sound of the ocean filled me and forced my eyes open. As she pulled off Pacific Coast Highway and onto Ocean Boulevard, I could see the waves spilling over the Long Beach — San Pedro breakwaters, crashing against the coast. I searched for land, grateful for the oncoming curb as we neared the seaside community of Belmont Shore.

We sought refuge at the first place we saw, the Twin Palms Motel, a salmon-colored stucco building right on the sand, flooded in seawater and mud. There was a public parking lot to the right.

The sign out front swung from two thin chains. The black vinyl lettering said FREE AIR CONDITIONING.


Excerpted from "The Salt God's Daughter"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Ilie Ruby.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

The Salt God's Daughter 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
thebookwormNJ More than 1 year ago
The Salt God's Daughter is a beautifully written novel about mothers, daughters and sisters and the bonds that tie them together. Sisters Ruthie and Dolly are raised by their eccentric and many times irrational mother, Diana. Diana is always struggling to stay afloat as a single mom. At first you see the story through the eyes of a young Ruthie and many of these scenes are heart wrenching as the girls live a nomadic life, living out of a car with their unstable mother. The magical realism and the mythology infused into the novel made this for a dream-like read. As roles are reversed, the girls have to care for their mother. Diana is an alcoholic who suffers from bouts of depression and mania. Always on the road, staying in motels from time to time, these three are at the mercy of help from others. Diana often tells the girls how they ruined her life, she blames them for her losses. The narrative is beautiful and some passages stole my breath away. The story goes from past to present, as Ruthie takes us through the years of her life. Ruthie finds love one day, a complicated affair with a fisherman who comes and goes from her life. She calls him the Salt God. Ruthie has a daughter, Naida, whom she refers to from time to time, until the latter half of the novel when the child is born and the story begins to revolve around Naida's life. This is the first time I've seen my name in a novel, as it is not a common name and I was pleasantly surprised. Bullying becomes a theme in the novel as Naida is harassed by some of her classmates due to her having a webbed foot. They call her the "Frog Witch". I liked Naida's character best, this is a girl who was in love with the ocean, who believed she could breathe under water and who was always searching for her father. The bullying scenes and Naida's inner monologue over them were particularly heart breaking. I also liked Ruthie's character and the bond between this mother and daughter. The story spans three generations of these women's lives, Diana, Ruthie and Naida. I recommend The Salt God's Daughter to fans of magical realism and stories that are heart breaking, but showcase the strength of the human spirit as well. disclaimer: This review is my honest opinion. I did not receive any type of compensation for reading and reviewing this book. I am under no obligation to write a positive review. I won a copy of The Salt God's Daughter online.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
WOW! A fascinating novel that felt epic and intimate at the same time. I will never look at the ocean in the same way again. Highly recommended
Lilac_Wolf More than 1 year ago
The Salt God's Daughter isn't an overly long book, but it is full of poetic and descriptive writing. The story itself is gripping and I enjoyed the writing. But I do want to give fair warning, it does get wordy. Now you just have to decide if you like that or not. I thought it was beautiful and moved quickly through the tale. It's split into two parts. The first part tells the story of Ruthie's childhood, which was mostly unsupervised and spent homeless and traveling. Ruthie grows up to give birth to Naida and swears her daughter will never question her love. Ruthie has a terrible fear of water, yet lives near the ocean. Her daughter, Naida, loves the Ocean completely. There were plenty of happy moments within the story, but you spend a lot of time with your heart breaking for Ruthie and Naida. The author doesn't pretend that it's all rosy when you are considered to be on the fringe of society. If you are different, you are a target. There is a hint of magic in this tale with the tale of the people with animal skins who live in the water, never really belonging on land or to the sea. Ruthie's mother was obsessed with the moon and drawn to the ocean. It wasn't presented in a way to be "true" but it is never quite written off either. I truly loved all the mini-tales within this book. I was sorry to finish.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago