Inside the old house Ruby was sleeping, which was rare. Ruby did not sleep – much. For her mind tangled like a fine gold chain, knotted, she was certain, beyond all repair. Still she tried each day to trace the links, only to lose them again and again.
Ruby Bell has returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City and become the talk of the town.
She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses as thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of legs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.
It’s well known that Ruby’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. No one notices Ephram, ‘he was just another thick horse brown man with a ratted cap and a stooped gait’, but Ruby does.
When Ruby lies for three hours in a stagnant pool left by Hurricane Beulah:
Ephram Jennings saw that Ruby had become the still water. He saw her liquid deep skin, her hair splayed by onyx river vines.
As rain began to fall upon her, Ephram saw her splash and swell and spill out of the small ravine. Ephram Jennings knew. That is when Ruby lifted her head like a rising wave and noticed Ephram. In that moment the two knowings met.
The first third of the book concerns Ephram’s journey to Ruby’s house. It’s interspersed with Ephram’s story – how his sister, Celia, has raised him since he was eight and she was fourteen when their mother was incarcerated in Dearing State Mental-Colored Ward and their father, the Reverend Jennings, went preaching on the road for ten months of the year, as well as tales from Ruby and Ephram’s childhood including one about them and Ruby’s friend, Maggie, visiting Ma Tante, the local ‘witch doctor’.
“You was born with a glaze over your face. Come out the womb with the white gel what let you see into the gray world. Yes?”
Ruby just barely nodded in agreement.
Ma Tante reached out and grabbed Ruby’s right hand. She turned over her palm and pointed. “You got da mystic star. There.” She took her other hand. “There too. Lord child you ain’t nothing but a doorway. How many haints you count at your heels?”
Ruby stopped dead. It was the first time anyone had seen. It meant she couldn’t pretend it was a game anymore, or a piece of a bad dream.
Finally she answered, “Three.”
“Your count be off. And more on the way.”
The adult Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which live with her whilst she tries to care for them in a way they weren’t cared for during their lives. As she gives over her faculties to them, the men of the town rape her repeatedly, congratulating themselves on finding a woman who’ll let them do anything they want.
She simply kept her limbs numb and her eyes empty as she had since she was fifteen. Since she was twelve. Seven. Six. Five. When the first man had ripped the cotton of her panties, explaining that this is what happens to very bad little girls. When the first man had sun smiled, “Training time…”
Ruby is very much about what men do to women: how they control them through sex and shame and religion; how they pit women against each other, using the age old divide and rule formula. As the story unfolds, the connection between Ruby and Ephram becomes clearer – his sister, Celia, playing a key part in both the connection when they were children and the attempt to keep Ephram from Ruby as an adult.
Ruby’s story also highlights the intersections of gender, class and race in the parts of the novel which recall her time in New York City. There it is men and white women who are responsible for the abuse she experiences.
All of this makes the novel sound as though it’s incredibly bleak and it is bleak but there’s also an underlying thread of hope; it’s carried in Ephram but also in Ruby herself and the care she administers to the haints. The novel’s also lifted by Bond’s beautiful use of language, something I hope is evident in the quotations I’ve chosen – I highlighted many many more as I was reading. In the USA, Ruby was chosen by Oprah for her book club and I’m astonished more people in the UK aren’t talking about this novel. Ruby is an incredible book, one I wanted to start reading again from the beginning as I turned the final page.