Cynthia Bond's debut novel Ruby (Hogarth) is a story that manages to be epic on a small scale. The book confronts the ugliness of the world, yet doesn't surrender to it as the forces of hope and despair play themselves out in a small 1970s Texas town. The novel is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and is a must-read for anyone interested in historical fiction that isn't quite as far removed from the present as we'd like.
Ephram Jennings has lived in Liberty, Tex. his whole life, and has been in love with Ruby Bell for almost as long. As a child, Ruby was "the kind of pretty it hurt to look at," but after Ruby returned to Liberty after living in New York, her life and mind began to unravel until she becomes a local cautionary: the girl who went off to the big city and then lost her mind. But the source of Ruby's pain doesn't stem from the glamour she found in 1950s New York — it's instead derived much closer to home. Still haunted by the violence from her childhood, Ruby spends her days disconnected from her reality, so far lost that it's possible she might never find her way back. And it remains to be seen if even Ephram, who still loves her in spite of everything, can help her any longer.
Ruby is remarkable for its ability to look at the people and communities portrayed in its pages with intimacy. From the dialect of her characters' dialogue to the rhythms of their lives, Bond takes the world she portrays on its own terms, not imposing external values upon it. The book does not tear down the worldview or supernatural beliefs of its characters, nor does it present these attitudes as anthropological curiosities. Within the pages of the novel, these things are real, from the local witch with her gris-gris and her tree of souls, to the supernatural forces that plague Ruby. Similarly, the fixtures of tiny Liberty, its houses of worship and houses of sin, are not made to seem small (and therefore unimportant). Rather they are for the readers as they are for the characters — the world.
The novel depicts the rhythms and ruptures of life in a black town in the rural south in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, and does so with clear eyes, even in the face of horrific events that transpire within the book. As one of the characters observes, "ain't nothing strange when Colored folks go crazy. Strange is when we don't." Bond has managed to capture that atmosphere in her novel, somehow giving voice to unspeakable horrors that Liberty faces from without while also capturing the survival mechanism and strict ideas about proper behavior that restrain the community from within. And in the midst of all of this is Ruby, a girl who is the victim of both forces.
Ruby is a story of pain, love, and survival. It's a testament to the power of the human spirit — and to the power of a world that seeks to tear that spirit down.