Evocative, haunting, honest. This literary depiction feels like a piece of history.
“Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high.”
These are the intriguing words that start off Cynthia Bond’s new book Ruby. It is also a tale that caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey and made it to her esteemed Oprah Book Club. And, it’s easy to see why: rift with tension from racial conflicts to dark forces that reign over humanity, the book is a cross between a Stephen King thriller and a historical narrative. Yes, there is even a symbolic crow that makes an appearance in the book.
The story follows two characters – Ruby Bell (of course) and Ephram Jennings – through the course of their lives. Ephram has not been able to get the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the red dust and piney woods of Liberty, their small East Texas town, out of his mind.
One of Oprah’s favourite passages from Ruby describes Ephram beautifully.
“The magical thing about Ephram Jennings was that if you looked real hard, you could see a circle of violet rimming the brown of his irises. Soft like the petals of spreading periwinkle. The problem was that no one, not even his sister, took the time to really see Ephram Jennings.”
For Ruby Bell, Liberty holds bittersweet memories. A past that she cannot forget and a calling back to the town that is hell bent on ruining her. Losing her mind and her dignity she becomes a bit of Liberty’s punching bag. But, she must stay because she cannot abandon the spirits and the ghost that haunts her.
“They had all watched, steadily, as she slipped into madness. Concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline.”
But before she sinks back into the madness of Liberty, Ruby had a life in Manhattan.
“Ruby was constantly amazed by the gush of life pressing against her on the street. The theatre marquees towering over her head…The eyes that raked over her, some approving, some not. The crush of Colored and White pressing shoulder to shoulder on streets , buses and subways…And, the people! Sure Ruby passed Colored men and women with their heads bowed, dressed as maids in loose overcoats, or men in coveralls with ashen, scraped hands. But there were also immaculately groomed Negro women in matching olive skirts and scarves, cigarette holders and poodles on green leashes, hair coifed and pressed perfectly under learning hats.”
Cynthia Bond depicts an unnerving honesty of the 1930s juxtaposing the dynamism of big city life where the winds of societal change held sway with the static unchanging reality of small town America.
Ephram has not had it easy either. At ten his mother ran into a church picnic naked, and had to be institutionalized. His father, the Reverend, was neither a warm figure nor a present one. After Ephram’s mama was committed to the mental institution, his father travelled “preaching” the gospel. He was found murdered out by Marion Lake when Ephram was thirteen and his older sister, Celia was nineteen. Celia essentially became his “mama” and devoted her entire life looking after him. Years later, Ephram must face a decision: whether to be loyal to a sister who has raised him, or relinquish everything for a life with Ruby, a woman he has loved all his life.
“Hope was a dangerous thing, something best squashed before it became contagious.”
The book is as disturbing as it is powerful. It gets into your being and resonates long after the last pages have been turned. Definitely not for the faint of heart, or for the young at heart, Ruby has content that is evocative and grown up.
“She did not thank him. Just like a White woman. Just as Mrs. Gladdington had taught her – that some things were her right. That she no more had to thank the waiter or the cab driver than she would thank the air that she breathed.”