Strange Horizons, November 11, 2013

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Strange Horizons, November 11, 2013

“The Mythology of Salt” by O. J. Cade

Reviewed by Louis West

O.J. Cade’s “The Mythology of Salt” is an intense exploration of two diverse interstellar cultures—Māori traders from an ocean world and desert-dwellers on a water-scarce world—tied through the mythos of salt and pain. The story is told from three distinct points-of-view: Makareta, the Māori who owns a single freighter and, now that her husband is dead, makes the multi-year journey to trade the scarce, precious commodity salt; Edith, a member of the isolated desert dwellers who can’t afford the imported salt and see all off-worlders as sources of cultural pollution; Miriama, Edith’s aunt who fell in love with Makareta’s father-in-law, giving up clan and family in exchange for the allure of salt and the attentions of a man who eventually confessed he had family back home and no longer had a place for her and their daughter in his life.

As a younger woman, Makareta had endured the excruciating pain of Māori moko, the traditional chisel and mallet scarring and dying form of tattooing of the chin and lips. Her mother had said that “if you can stand this, you can stand anything,” while her culture believed that “the women who took it could not lose themselves no matter how far they were from home.” Still, the forced separation from her growing daughters was the greater pain. Only she could run the interstellar freighter, the business that kept her kids fed, housed, educated and exposed to life options she’d never had.

Edith endures the traditional nomadic life of being viewed by men as not much better than property. Her only purpose is to birth sons and take care of the family. But the tribal women have a secret life of their own tied to the strange woman-shaped pillar of salt in the desert, a natural construct Edith learns is regularly maintained by Makareta as a part of the bargain her aunt’s off-world lover made to support her.

Rejected by her people, Miriama lives with her daughter on the fringes of the spaceport—whore and half-breed daughter—scraping by as best she can by facilitating the salt trade between the off-worlders and desert people. Miriama only wants to embrace the culture of her upbringing, but her daughter wants to break free of the shackles of her history and be more.

In spite of their diverse lives and cultures, all three women have three things in common: the salt trade, great pain in their lives and daughters with more options in life than they’d ever known.

A fascinating cross-cultural story but challenging to read in order to glean all the layers and meanings from it. Still, well worth the investment. Recommended.