The Salt Roads
I’m really glad I kept reading this, because the beginning was not exactly my cup of tea. There were a couple graphic sex scenes, and some mentions of bodily fluids, and well, I sometimes get a bit squeamish. But I persevered, and was happy that I did.
The Salt Roads consists of three main narratives that are connected via the experiences of the goddess Ezili. In Hopkinson’s tale, Ezili is brought forth one night as three slave women bury a stillborn child in the French colony of Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti). Ezili sees how her people, the Ginen, are suffering, and wants to help them. I loved hearing how Ezili learns who she is and how to harness her powers. I’ve never read anything similar describing the birth of a goddess.
The first narrative follows Mer, a slave born in Africa, carried through the hellish Middle Passage, to the Caribbean. Mer has lived twelve years in Saint Domingue – longer than most slaves survive there. She works bent over in the cane fields until she is needed to tend to suffering fellow slaves. The master wants to protect his investment, after all. Mer uses her abilities to comfort her people the best that she can. She can sometimes speak to the lwa, or spirits, who seek her help in clearing the salt roads back to Africa.
Thais is a Nubian slave, made to work in the brothels of Alexandria. She and her friend Judah, a fellow slave, run away on an adventure to Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem). The two of them practice their only trade in exchange of passage across the Mediterranean. Hopkinson manages to rework their journey into the origins of the Catholic Saint Mary of Egypt. Thais’s story is the weakest of the three, but the sly religious commentary makes it fun and irreverent.
The character, and narrative, of Jeanne Duval is based on a real person. Duval was a dancer and actress in Paris, during the mid-1800s. She was the longtime mistress of poet Charles Baudelaire. Hopkinson sketches the hard life Duval lived. Her mother and grandmother had to work as prostitutes. She endured sexual harassment from the owner of the venue where she performed. She finds comfort in the arms of one of the other performers – a white woman named Lisette. Both women are searching for men that will elevate their stations and give them long term comfort and stability. I loved how Hopkinson took this historical figure and rewrote her “ending.” There’s not much known about the real Jeanne Duval, and most, if not all, of it comes from the famous men in her life. Nadar, an early French photographer and one time lover, reported that he last saw her alive in 1870, forlorn and hunched over a cane. Hopkinson puts her own spin on this sighting.
I have one major gripe with my version of the book, which I checked out from my library. The book was sitting on y end table, and I noticed it had a bright green label on the spine. My library uses these labels to mark special interest categories, like mysteries or science fiction. I knew that Hopkinson wrote speculative fiction, so I thought perhaps this was labeled as science fiction. Upon closer inspection, I quickly saw this was not the case:
Yes, this book features black main characters. One of the settings is a Caribbean slave plantation. Does that mean that only black people would be interested in it? I hope not! So why the label? I guess one interpretation is that the library has found that this makes it easier for people specifically searching for books about black people to find those books. The problem is that there are a lot of people who would like this book, but aren’t specifically looking for “black interest” books. I wonder how this book is shelved. Do some library branches have separate “black interest” sections? If so, they may need a visit from Carleen