Cynthia Bond’s debut novel leaves the reader dirty, her words clinging to your eyes, your hands and your heart as if you have just stood naked, battered and raw in a dust storm of them.
Set in the small East Texas town of Liberty, Ruby is the tale of the titular Ruby Bell and the man who loves her, Ephram Jennings. Ephram and Ruby meet as children in 1940, when Ruby comes to Liberty to visit family, and though decades pass before they see each other again, Ephram cannot and does not forget Ruby. In 1963 she returns and moves into the woods that border the town, becoming feral and seemingly insane, a figure of scorn in the local community. Bond describes this version of Ruby on the book’s opening page: “She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night.”
Ruby, like Ephram, has suffered all her life from what Bond, herself an East Texas native, refers to repeatedly as “The Lonely,” as if the emotion were alive and taking up space in the world. One gets the feeling that The Lonely is a common companion for Southern African-Americans born and raised in the era of Jim Crow. When Ruby is a child, her mother is raped by a white man the same night her aunt is murdered by a posse of 11 white deputies, all members of the Ku Klux Klan, the aunt’s sin being that a white man had left his wife for her. After her mother runs away, 6-year-old Ruby is sold into sexual slavery. As a teen she flees to New York to find her mother, but when the bottom falls out she returns to Liberty, where her demons—haints, a dybbuk, ghosts of murdered children—are waiting for her.
Ephram’s own past is plenty rocky. His mother is declared insane and disappears forever into an asylum, his father is lynched when Ephram is 13, and his Bible-thumping older sister Celia has raised (and coddled and oppressed) him ever since. By 1974, the novel’s present setting, Ephram’s body is broken, his bones so brittle he must use a cane.
Ruby is a complicated portrait of a seemingly simple place. Bond tells the story of Ruby and Ephram’s lives and their relationship with unflinching honesty and a surreal, haunting quality, especially when she describes Ruby living alone in the woods with only nature and her demons keeping her company: “She felt the small ghosts who were still hidden in her body. The ones she had yet to give birth to. They turned and shifted within her.”
Through Bond’s lyrical prose, we see how intertwined the body and the mind are, and how easy is the slide between reality and nightmares.
Ruby also illustrates how the harshness of racism and the ever-present vestiges of slavery use, and use up, black bodies, especially black women’s bodies, and yet Bond shows that those same bodies hold within them the ability to protect, to connect and to survive.
Ruby’s is a story about angel cake and the importance of food; about sexual violence so omnipresent it becomes just another moment to be suffered through; about the mix, and its consequences, of Christian religion and old-world Voodoo that floats through many black Southern towns; about the sounds of life both harsh and melodic, from the screams Ruby unleashes each night to the duet of snapped green beans hitting a bowl while Andy Williams croons on the radio; and about the power of becoming and of knowing, and how both processes are always in motion.
This is an evocative, affective and accomplished first novel. Cynthia Bond challenges the reader to watch even when we don’t want to see, and to keep reading even when it seems too much. By the end we are left with an understanding of what one character means when he says, “Hell, ain’t nothing strange when Colored go crazy. Strange is when we don’t.”