FEBRUARY 2015 UPDATE: I’ve been telling people since last spring about Ruby. This week, Oprah Winfrey announced that Cynthia Bond’s debut novel is her fourth pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. I’m delighted that Ruby will gain so many new eyeballs and spark so many water cooler conversations, difficult as those conversations may be.
I have been trying to write about Ruby by Cynthia Bond for weeks now without any luck. You see, I want everyone to read this book. I think it is one of the most moving and well-crafted novels I’ve read in a very long time. However, I also feel like I have to offer some kind of disclaimer. One that reads: “This book will upend you.”
I first heard about Ruby from an indie bookseller who was halfway through an advanced reader copy and said it was blowing him away. Thank goodness for indie booksellers. One only has to read the first few sentences of Ruby to understand what my bookseller friend was referencing. Bond’s writing is arresting:
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.
In 1963, just two days after the March on Washington, the book’s eponymous protagonist reappears in Liberty Township, Texas. Ruby had been living in New York City with no plans to return to her all-black hometown, but news of a close family member’s death summons her. In Liberty, Ruby confronts the evils inherent in being a mulatto girl raised in a patriarchal small town where doctrine and social class mask a deep well of hatred. Ruby becomes a vessel for all that is ugly in the world, driving her to madness. Only one man in Liberty, Ephram Jennings, remembers the girl from their shared childhood and sees a human being worth salvaging.
I’ve sampled online reviews to see how others have described the book. Gina Webb, book reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, calls Ruby “Bond’s harrowing and powerful debut” when listing it among her handpicked southern titles for the summer. Still other critics are comparing Cynthia Bond to Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.
Ruby does remind me of an old African-American saying that appears in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s protagonist, Janie Crawford says…
“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”
From birth, Ruby is an object of oppression and abuse. Bond reveals in explicit detail the horrific things that Ruby has experienced. As a reader, you yearn to uncover the root of the town’s problems, of which Ruby has become an emblem. However, the descriptions of physical violence and sexual exploitation of women and children–while necessary to tell the tale–are often hard to endure.
In this interview, Cynthia Bond says that Ruby is “a love story of the heart.” The love story and the fresh prose will deliver you through some of the tougher scenes. Since finishing the book at the end of April, I’ve returned to it many times, to re-read the sentences and passages that I have highlighted, a sea of pastel yellow in my e-reader. To learn more about Cynthia Bond and her debut novel Ruby, visit her website at cynthiabond.com.