“Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.”
I went into this novel without knowing much about it, and from the first paragraph (copied above) I was completely blown away. Set in the Deep South, this book is the story of Ruby and Ephram, her childhood friend. It deals with the hard hitting issues that face black people in America, particularly women, and also the LGBTQ community. Ruby was taken to live with a white woman from a young age, and returns to the town after many years away in New York. Although she at first looks the part of a sophisticated city woman, this slowly falls away as her imagination enfolds her, in order to protect her from a harsh reality. Meanwhile, Ephram has never left town, nor the house where his sister raised him. But he has never forgotten Ruby.
The author has managed to blend beautiful imagery and metaphors with the awful realities that many black people have faced throughout history. Although it at times becomes difficult to read, it seems like a just way to deal with the atrocities of abuse, rape and lynching.
A powerful message running through the book is that if we are told enough what people think we are, it’s what we become. Ruby is told time and time again from a young age what white men think she is, and as she grows older it becomes her only way of identifying herself. Whenever Ephram’s sister tells him he’s hurting, his body begins to ache until he cannot move. This emphasises the terrible power labelling others can have throughout their lives.
Despite not understanding each other, Ephram is drawn to Ruby, until she too becomes attached to him. Ephram finds Ruby lying in a pool of mud beside the road and instead of thinking her to be crazy, he sees that she has hidden herself in nature, even though he doesn’t understand why.
“He wanted to tell her that he had seen a part of the night sky resting in her eyes and he knew it because it lived in him as well. He wanted to tell her about the knot corded about his heart and how he needed her help to loose the binding.”
The beauty and innocence of their relationship despite all of the sorrows they have suffered provides a well needed respite. It gives hope against the odds without ruining the power of the narrative. This fragile hope is reflected in the imagery of nature that protects Ruby from the humans around her. To her, humans are dangerous; Nature is safe.
“The audacious hope of rooted things. The innocent anticipation of the shooting stalks, the quivering stillness of the watching trees.”
Along with a similar setting and shared themes, the writing style of this book often reminded me of the imagery in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s truly unmissable.