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In Gabriela Garcia’s ‘Of Women and Salt,’ five generations of mothers and daughters fight to stay afloat

Debut author Gabriela Garcia makes her intentions clear from the first page. Before she embarks on the shifting perspectives that guide “Of Women and Salt” through five generations and four countries, Garcia provides the diagrams of two matrilineal family trees.

Like the lyric narratives that follow, these family trees feature the first names of women. Abusive men damaged these trees and deadened their branches, but matriarchs are the root of these stories.

Still, mothers don’t always know what to do. “Of Women and Salt” begins with a plea from a Cuban American woman named Carmen, who begs her daughter Jeanette to find the will to endure despite traumas both inherited and experienced. “Maybe there are forces neither of us examined. Maybe if I had a way of seeing all the past, all the paths, maybe I’d have some answer as to why: Why did our lives turn out this way?”

For that, Garcia reaches back to 1866 in Camagüey, Cuba, where María Isabel becomes the first woman in her cane-cutting line to roll cigars and, soon thereafter, to read. Subjected to harassment, lesser wages and unwanted advances in a shadowy cigar factory, she becomes enraptured by books read aloud to the workers by a lector who quickly falls in love with her.

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Their union, forged during a Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule and slavery, ends with blood that births a new future. Liberation is not linear — not for countries nor for women. Though María Isabel “wanted to write her life into existence and endure,” not all freedoms are made possible by resilience.

“Of Women and Salt” leaps forward to 2014 in Miami. María Isabel’s great-great-granddaughter Jeanette is sleepless during a new and tremulous sobriety. Freer than she feels, Jeanette is on probation after being in rehab. Addicted to prescription drugs, she is haunted by stories that have gone untold for too long. Her brittle mother Carmen “lives among the Cuban elite, the First Wave, the people who lost homes and businesses and riches and ran from communism at the start of the revolution.”

Jeanette has never spoken to Carmen’s mother, Dolores, who still lives in rural Cuba. Riven by sexual and substance abuse, domestic violence and political tensions, their family ruptured during traumatic episodes disclosed with the flickering of time in future chapters.

María Isabel and her descendants found strength to endure, but their survival strategies relied upon silence and estrangement. Their matrilineal wisdom, which should have been a birthright for every woman born into that family, instead surfaces intermittently across the centuries. Burdened with longings shared by her ancestors, Jeanette “didn’t have the vocabulary to say, I want to know who I am, so I need to know who you’ve been.”

After witnessing an ICE raid that leads to her neighbor’s deportation, Jeanette gives food and shelter to a small girl named Ana, who arrives home from the babysitter to find a locked and darkened apartment. So begins the interrupted flourishing of the other family tree, planted in unstable soil whether in El Salvador, the United States or Mexico.

Ana is caught in what Valeria Luiselli described as a “hemispheric war” over drugs and arms amid U.S. complicity in the fractured economies of Central and South America. In “Tell Me How It Ends,” Luiselli writes, “Those children are refugees of a war, and, as such, they should all have the right to asylum. But not all of them have it.”

Ana’s mother, a hard-working housekeeper named Gloria, left El Salvador because of gang violence that reshaped her entire existence. As “Of Women and Salt” unfolds, U.S. immigration officials treat her family as though their lives and contributions have no value.

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Fearful that her attempts to provide care might be in violation of her probation, Jeanette cannot be what Ana needs. During a deportation process meted out with “papers they won’t translate,” Gloria prays for outcomes she can’t control. “I do not want my child here, where every child has a cough and the guards run their eyes over curves, hungry. I do not want my child here but I do not want her alone thousands of miles away. I want my child safe.”

The bonds of motherhood are deep and tenuous. Though it “is ugly to admit” her pain and confusion, Gloria defines motherhood as “a constant calculation of what-if. What if we just gave up?” In “Of Women and Salt,” the women do not surrender their hopes, but they also flail against fates they never would have chosen for themselves nor their daughters.

Though “there are no real rules that govern why some are born in turmoil and others never know a single day in which the next seems an ill-considered bet,” the forces that shape these families are unmistakably patriarchal, capitalist and colonial. Against these tides of injustice, mothers and daughters fight to stay afloat, clinging to the wisdom that “we are more than we think we are.”

Kristen Millares Young is the author of the novel “Subduction,” a finalist for a Foreword Indies Book of the Year Award and two International Latino Book Awards.

Of Women and Salt

By Gabriela Garcia

Flatiron. 224 pp. $26.99

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