The Salt Roads
by Nalo Hopkinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 11, 2021
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The third of Nalo Hopkinson's novels could be considered historical fiction blended with fantasy. The Salt Roads, which was a finalist for Nebula, Locus, and Gaylactic Spectrum awards, features three women in three different eras and locales. The first introduced is the slave woman Mer, a healer on a Saint Domingue (later Haiti) sugar cane plantation. The second woman is historical, Jeanne Duval, who left Haiti around 1840 to become an actress/dancer in France. She was a mistress of French poet Charles Baudelaire, on and off for about twenty years. It's possible she was a descendant of one of the characters in the earlier scenario, but not Mer, who never had children. The third is also historical, but from a much earlier period. Thais was a prostitute in 4th Century Alexandria, Egypt, whose mother was Nubian, her father Greek. She later converted to Christianity, although most of her story is probably fictional, and Hopkinson combined it with that of Maria Aegyptiaca, Saint Mary of Egypt.
The title could have different meanings, referring to the salt of tears, sweat, and blood, all shed in the struggles for freedom by the three women. Or it is the "sea roads" that connect the Haitian slaves (Ginen) to their ancestral roots in Africa. One of the African goddesses, Lasirén, also known as Ezili, is summoned by the songs of Mer and her friends Tipingee and Georgine, when they bury Georgine's still-born baby. Later, the goddess appears to Mer alone, imploring her to help free up the sea roads, which are drying up. At first that is puzzling for Mer, but she thinks she understands when she learns of the coming slave revolt. It is less clear what it might mean for Jeanne Duval, since she is a free woman, albeit a lower class than she would like. As for Thais, it might be more literal, since she takes a sea voyage to a place she has heard of and always wanted to visit, Aelia Capitolina, modern day Jerusalem. What she doesn't realize until her ship docks is the city is many miles inland, and she has little money to pay for transport. After the long walk she suffers a miscarriage within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, then after recovering she walks into the desert east of the Jordan River. What happens after that is more Mary of Egypt's story. Lasirén moves through time and the ethereal space of the Loa, entering the mind of the women at different times, as well as briefly inhabiting others, such as the French plantation owner's fiancée, who calls on him to be lenient in accepting the return of the runaway slave Patrice, Tipingee's husband.
Another fantasy element is Makandal, one of the Haitian slaves who has a connection to the runaway maroons, and who is a shapeshifter. He can transform into both big and small animalls, from dogs and goats, to lizards and insects. Whenever Mer encounters a creature, she checks to see if they have all their legs, since Makandal is missing half of his right forearm. The only connection Jeanne Duval has with "magic" is spells and potients she buys from a friend. Thais regularly prays to her gods and goddesses, occasionally referring to herself by one of their names, Meritet, or Meri. Whenever someone Christian hears her they correct her pronunciation, saying it is Mary, the Mother of God. The prose is more direct, more accessible than in her previous novels, with little of the Haitian Creole dialect in Mer's scenes. Not sure why, since it would have been natural, but perhaps the slaves were trying to be more sophisticated in order to impress their owners of their worth.
Mer's is a journey towards freedom, even if she did not live long enough to see it come to pass. She learned to read and write, and taught young Ti-Bois the ways of herbs and healing, which he probably used to good advantage during the revolution. Mer may not have gained freedom but she did pave the way, opening up the sea roads for others. Jeanne's journey was mostly social climbing, trying to pull herself out of poverty. She never reached that with Baudelaire, but with Lasirén's help she did find love and comfort elsewhere. Thais' journey was out of sexual slavery, but into what is debatable since her story is open-ended. Did she live out her life in the desert, or did she return to Egypt? In either case, I think she was free within her own mind. They all suffered, but also thrived through their own perserverance, and through the charity of others. I'm sure neither of them thought they were ever lucky, but they all ended in a more positive place than when they began. It's bawdy at times, but always believable, always relatable. Recommended.
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