If we’re lucky enough to be raised in a relatively peaceful and happy household we might believe that we’re the innocent inheritors of a well-meaning world. But, as we grow older, we learn the truth about current and past injustice. We slowly understand that our place in the world has to be earned or fought for and that our ancestors undoubtedly have blood on their hands. In Cynthia Bond’s novel, Ruby is a girl who has never had any such illusions of the world’s purity having been shown at an early age the wrath and domineering power of men. She’s a fantastically realized character: an intelligent and strong individual. Ruby also comes to embody all that’s wrong in her community – all the evil things which remain hidden from doe-eyed believers of purity.
As a young woman Ruby escapes the suffocating confines and abuse of her small community in Texas to live under a different kind of oppression in New York City. But she eventually returns to the place of her birth to live a wretched existence on the fringes of the community where she can protectively foster the spirits of departed babies. Ephram is a man who knew her as a girl. He journeys across the town to bring her a White Lay Angel Cake. He wants to care for and protect Ruby who is shunned by the rest of the community – especially his church-driven and self-righteous sister Celia. However, Ruby has been transformed by the anger and lust of men. She cannot accept any traditionally virtuous path. Bond writes that “Those men were a part of the wheel of the world and helped it turn. The same wheel that Ruby knew would crush her every time she rose up to fight.” The author has an extraordinary way of turning the grim realities of the world she portrays into battling supernatural powers. The abuse and horror that people can inflict can be so extreme that they are transformed in the story into an actual demon or “Dybou” skulking and feeding upon those who have been smothered. This is an environment so saturated with superstition it spills out into the real world. It’s a community entrenched in its belief that those who wield power deserve to possess it. Ruby has learned to navigate this reality and stand outside of it.
This is a novel populated by a wealth of fascinating and complexly written characters. Although Ruby and Ephram are the most prominent figures, the story winds back to the histories of their parents, extended family and those in the community around them. Ruby’s aunt Neva is a mixed-race strawberry blonde and blue eyed girl who becomes a married white man’s mistress who the community refuses to accept. Ephram’s father Omar (Reverend) Jennings survived a traumatic childhood to preach his sermon, lead a cult of men and inflict terrible abuse upon his wife who eventually goes insane. Ma Tante is a woman of Jamaican descent who lives on the outskirts of town and communes with the spirit world. Celia has raised her younger brother Ephram after they are left on their own, creates fantastic feasts of food and desires more than anything to be the church mother of her congregation. The stories of the novel’s many compelling characters combine to show how extremely brutal the world can be, but also how surprisingly virtuous and kind individuals can make a difference in changing it.
While the novel’s focus is on the all-black community of Liberty township, passages dip into Ruby’s experience in a rapidly changing Harlem and the emerging cultural renaissance. We’re given pleasurable glimpses of some of the prominent writers of the time like Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin. The author is keenly attuned to some of the inherent contradictions that some people who hung upon this scene embodied: “The hip and the beat crowd pretended to pretend that skin color was a frock you donned for the evening.” More disturbingly, she writes a painful portrait of a whorehouse that Ruby comes to live in where women are made to feel they deserve to take whatever their male clients want to give them. She returns to her small community with more sophistication and resilience, but also more burdened by her experiences in the city.
It’s extremely clever how Cynthia Bond blends poignantly realistic detail with supernatural elements to say something new. “Ruby” is a beautifully written and powerful story.