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Of Women and Salt


Of Women and Salt

With the transition to a new presidential administration, the immigration issue has once again worked its way into the forefront of American consciousness. That vexing problem is at the heart of Gabriela Garcia’s debut, OF WOMEN AND SALT, but this sensitive novel also touches on a wider range of subjects affecting the lives of Latinx women that transforms it into much more than an immigration story.

From its opening chapter, set in Cuba in the midst of an upheaval against the Spanish colonial government in the 1860s, the book follows five generations of women of one family, and a mother and daughter in another whose lives intersect with that family’s in 21st-century Miami, deeply exploring their struggles and longings.

"Garcia has succeeded in populating [the book] with memorable characters, focusing much of her attention on the often fraught relations between mothers and daughters.... Simultaneously sobering and inspiring, OF WOMEN AND SALT represents a promising start to her literary career."

Beginning with the story of María Isabel, the sole female employee in a cigar factory in Camagüey, Cuba, who clings to the reminder “we are force” to give herself strength, Garcia effectively creates concise portraits of women under stress --- whether that involves simply surviving in a patriarchal society, defending oneself against overt sexual and physical abuse, or negotiating the complexities of the American immigration system. Forgoing a chronological narrative, in essentially self-contained chapters that function like linked stories, Garcia returns to Cuba at the time of Castro’s revolution. Again in 2015, she visits a decidedly unglamorous contemporary Miami and travels to an immigrant detention camp in Texas and Mexico, where two characters find a home after leaving the camp.

OF WOMEN AND SALT is a brief novel, barely more than 200 pages. Despite its economy, Garcia has succeeded in populating it with memorable characters, focusing much of her attention on the often fraught relations between mothers and daughters. Among the most vivid are Jeanette, a young woman living in Miami who is scarred by a drug addiction that has resisted multiple efforts at recovery; her mother Carmen, a Cuban immigrant who left the island in the early 1970s and has no desire to return after prospering in the United States; and Ana, a young girl who escaped from El Salvador to Miami with her mother Gloria as a toddler, and eventually finds herself as an adolescent having to make her own way in the world. One other noteworthy character is Jeanette’s Cuban grandmother, Dolores, who finally summons the strength to deal with her husband’s years of violent abuse.

Although Garcia has said that her novel is not autobiographical, she draws on her own background as the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Cuba, as well as her work as an organizer in migrant rights movements during the Obama administration. She’s careful to avoid the slippery slope down which fiction occasionally slides into polemic, but she does have firm views on the immigration issue, as she explained in an interview with Shelf Awareness last year: “I hope the [media] spotlight on the daily atrocities that take place within the [detention and deportation systems] remains regardless of election outcomes, and that we champion stories that center immigrants, especially by immigrant writers, always.” Her account of the lives of Ana and her mother in detention and in Mexico, and a frighteningly realistic description of a group of children navigating a nighttime border crossing, bring a human element to a story that too often focuses on bloodless statistics and political posturing.

“We are more than we think we are,” Jeanette writes in the margin of a treasured book that serves to connect her story to those of María Isabel, Carmen and Ana. Whether or not they’ve been successful in confronting all the hardships that have damaged their lives, each of Garcia’s characters has been touched in one way or another by that belief. Simultaneously sobering and inspiring, OF WOMEN AND SALT represents a promising start to her literary career.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 2, 2021

Of Women and Salt
by Gabriela Garcia

  • Publication Date: January 4, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250776708
  • ISBN-13: 9781250776709