I’ve been on my Spring Break reading vacation since 5:00PM on Thursday and have, with brief breaks, been mainlining fiction ever since. So far, I have completed four books by reading constantly, only pausing to sleep, eat, and do my taxes. But this afternoon, I had to set aside Cynthia Bond’s Ruby because the book was too intense for me to handle all in one go—just like Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things.
Ruby Bell is the center of the eponymous novel, but our narrator is Ephram Jennings, a man who has known the strange, tortured woman since they were children. He was there in 1963 when Ruby returned to Liberty, Texas, after the death of another childhood friend. Her return reminded me of Janie Crawford’s return at the beginning of Their Eyes Were Watching God, but all similarities end there. Where Janie had discovered herself and her self-worth before coming back, Ruby lost every spark of herself years ago. Her story is so much darker than anything Janie faced.
For eleven years since that day in 1963, Ephram has watched Ruby deteriorate into madness. She is a wild thing who lives on her family’s land and charity. It’s well known that the men of Liberty—except Ephram—take advantage of her from time to time. This is just the latest abusive chapter in Ruby’s life. When Ruby loses control of her bladder one day in the street, Ephram is shaken out of his watchful pity. The first third of Ruby is framed with Ephram’s journey to the Bell house to take Ruby a cake. There rare frequent flashbacks into Ephram and Ruby’s pasts. Ephram tells us about Ma Tante’s warnings and her vodun ways and his disapproving preacher father. He shows how tightly the town of Liberty is bound to the religions both characters evangelized—and the stark differences between the rigid, unforgiving small town Christianity and the terrifying vodun practices that the people still follow in spite of their public professions.
The story grows more intense in parts two and three. (I had to take a few hours off during part three because I couldn’t handle the revelations about the evil that’s been haunting Liberty and Ruby.) In part two, Ephram begins his slow, beautiful attempt to rehabilitate Ruby. I was struck by a particularly profound passage when Ephram begins to restore Ruby’s hair:
Her hair was hard in places like thick plastic. It had matted so that scabs had formed along the scalp, bled and dried into scars. Some of the hair had tangled into ropes, so dense, so solid that it would have been easier to shave her head and start fresh…Ephram had always thought of a woman’s hair as a living testimony to her life, her memories. Celia [Ephram’s sister] kept hers twisted tight under bobby pins, bound by headscarves and wig nets. His mama had kept hers free and puffy, until, he’d heard, they made her tie it back at Dearing. He’d silently watched women and the complexity of their hair all of his life. He knew that some memories were better cut out, amputated. He’d seen women freed that way. But his bones told him that Ruby needed her past to find her way home. So he spent the night tending to her hair. (186-187*)
As Ephram untangles Ruby’s long hair, he gets flashes of her past trauma. By morning, after hours of work, Ephram falls asleep thinking, “So this is the life of a woman” (190). I was floored by Ruby’s story and marveled at Ephram’s gentle acceptance of who Ruby is and what she’s done to herself to stay alive.
Liberty, Texas is a twisted town. It’s people are twisted, too. On the surface, they attend church and warn each other stridently about temptation. They shun Ruby. When Ephram starts to tend to her, his sister Celia organizes the church to try and exorcise the devil out of the pair of them. None of this is metaphor, but Celia has misidentified the devil and its victims. Throughout the book, Ruby has been struggling against an evil being known as the Dyboù, been watched over by a preternaturally wise crow, and been haunted by the ghosts of murdered children. The supernatural is doing brisk business in Liberty.
I had no idea whether Ruby was going to be a tragedy or a triumph until I read the last pages of the last chapter.
After finishing Ruby, I don’t know who I recommend this to. The abuses and traumas Ruby suffered as a child are harrowing, in the full sense of the word. It will take a stronger reader than I to read Ruby unscathed. I feel I can recommend it to readers who can understand that the fictional crimes perpetrated on Ruby were necessary for the story. This is a book about evil and Bond spares no one in showing us real evil. Nothing in Ruby is gratuitous, but this book is a hard, hard read, folks. Without evil, the redemption Ruby and Ephram claim for themselves and the love they find wouldn’t have nearly as much meaning.
This book is going to stay in my head for a long time.
* Quotes are from the 2014 hardcover edition by Hogarth.