Ruby, by Cynthia Bond, is an indictment. An indictment of communities, families, and religious groups who turn a blind eye to suffering, abuse, neglect and mental illness. It's also an examination of racism within the African American community. It's an ode to the power of mothers. It's a love story. I had the pleasure of reading this with Heather, and I'm so glad I did. This is the kind of book I needed to discuss throughout the process of reading, and it knocked me on my ass.
A while back, I posted about Confronting vs. Comforting books. Some books take us out of our comfort zones or put an issue that may unseat us squarely in our face. Ruby was truly a confronting book for me. While it is beautifully, painstakingly written, it's also one of the most violent, brutal, relentless books I've ever read. There is stomach-turning sexual violence and pedophilia, as well as physical and mental abuse. While Cynthia Bond's writing is unique, I saw shades of Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston in this novel. I also saw the grit and violence of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, though in a completely new context.
Ruby is a story about one woman’s attempt to escape the legacy of violence and sexual predation against blacks, especially fair-skinned blacks who could pass for white, in a small Southern town. Following her mother’s escape, Ruby goes to New York “hoping for a glimpse of the red hair and green eyes of her mother [Random House book jacket copy].” Ruby finds in New York her voice and a place, but a subsequent return to her East Texas hometown finds her slowly descending into the dark alleyways of her past and into incipient madness. With one’s man’s love, one that had existed since their childhood, she begins, with his help and advocacy, to reclaim herself. (Summary modified from this interview.)
The shorter more straightforward version would be: Ruby is abused from her childhood beginning around the time she was six years old. This colors and shapes every facet of her life, including her descent into madness from the beginning of this book to her rebirth and growing sense of agency at the end. This isn't a spoiler, but it's important to know that through all of the crisis there is hope at the end of this story. I think it's especially important in a book as confronting as this one.
Ruby is continually taken advantage of by the men of her town, who also happen to dabble in voodoo while they hide behind a mask of religion. The inclusion of a strong supernatural element was a surprise to me, but it allowed Bond to make some sentient points. Through all of the horrible things, Ruby is able to find herself and her will to fight as well as finding a purpose in her life worth fighting for.
It's so hard to express all that I saw and felt in this book. While it is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, I was so impressed by all of the themes and issues that Bond explored. Mothers are such an immovable force in the protection of children, Ruby herself was laid bare to the evils of the world because of her mother's absence and the violence against her was set in motion by a man no longer held accountable by his wife and the mother of his children. In turn, Ruby became a sort of mother in this book. A protector. A warrior. But it took a lot of defeat to get there.
While I'm hesitant to research a writer's life and see how it plays in their fiction, it's almost unavoidable in this case. Bond has devoted her career to teaching homeless and at-risk students how to write. How to purge their experience onto paper and let them go. I can't find the interview now, but I was reading a piece wherein she mentions hearing stories from her students similar to the ones in Ruby, and it's just so horrifying to think of anyone enduring abuse and tragedy like this. But they do. Every day. And we can't paint over it or ignore it. That's what this book is all about...being present. Being aware. Being able to listen and advocate for the people we love and the people who need it.
There's a line in the book that goes something like, "If you lived it, I can listen." That is the heart of Ruby. It seems so simple, but it's a powerful, worthwhile lesson.
Note: Ruby is the first novel in a multi-generational trilogy, and I will read every one.
Pub. Date: April 2014
Source: Gifted from a friend.
I couldn't help but do a video review, too!