Monday, March 24, 2014
"Ruby" by Cynthia Bond
It's about other things, too, many other things that are more easily enjoyed in the reading than sorted out for review: Love unrequited, child abuse, the black/white schism in the American south, lesbianism, voodoo, lynching and the bondage to which human beings subject one another.
Ruby is a product of the rape of a black woman by a white man. She is blessed, or cursed, with a beauty worthy of attention and that attention marks her for an interaction with influential Christian locals who are given to the secret practice of something called "conjure."
Early in the story, Ephram Jennings joins the child Ruby, and her knockabout soul sister Maggie, for an adventure that lands them in the home of one Ma Tante, a kind of voodoo seer. It's a great scene, powerfully visualized, successfully conveying the type of experience that sears a child's memory.
Ma Tante is spiritually attuned enough to know that "haints" or lost souls tend to follow Ruby around.
"Child, they ride you like a chariot ride a horse. They feastin' on yo' soul." the seer says. "This child gots a powerful hex 'sur son esprit,' done by peoples who knows how. Make her flypaper for all manner of traveling haint. May already be too late..."
And the rest of the story unfolds so as to answer whether it is too late, or not. A positive outcome depends upon the success of 42-year old Ephram, a man who, as a child, saw his mother committed to the crazy house and his father lynched.
He has been raised under the overweening watch of his sister Celia, to the point where he refers to her as "Mama." It has not been much of a life for Ephram, whose sole singular experience was the trip to Ma Tante's shack where he spent time under Ruby's alluring sway.
Celia wears the black hat here, a looming presence enforcing a narrow and mean-spirited strain of Christianity, which makes the fact that she is actually right, easy to overlook. Ruby Bell IS possessed by haints, and harassed by a powerful "Dybou," a negative force out of Ma Tante's conjure world.
The structure involves Ephram trying to connect with Ruby when they are in their 40s, both essentially beaten by life, she especially so, abandoned, shunned by the sacred community, and three-quarter's crazed. The good Christian folks of Liberty, out to save them both, will not permit an easy coalescence.
The progress of Ephram's attempt to restore Ruby's health and awareness, is interspersed ,with chapters of back story, a story of child abuse and prostitution, a young black woman's stab at freedom in New York only to find the same dish served differently, of her return to a southern town still chafing under Jim Crow.
It is the story of a man who has never left Liberty because no path was ever opened up to places beyond it, never existed. Celia's coddling is the source of Ephram's weakness; good food and a warm bed in exchange for light house duties are the elements from which his particular velvet coffin is constructed.
"Ruby" is certainly a story about white cruelty to blacks, but not in the main. Save for a few incidents, the white world mostly hovers omnipresent, threatening, something to be avoided or to placate when cornered.
Rather, the novel is concerned with the African-American milieu, which its distinctive portraits of blacks, in Liberty and on Manhattan Island, make clear is hardly monolithic. "Ruby" renders a brutality unleashed between the closest of kin and neighbors. It is incestuous, envious, and finally, destructive to individual aspirations and confidence.
Author Cynthia Bond's concoction is strong coffee. She does not pull a single punch, decorating her tale of sexual torture, psychological abuse, deceit, ambiguity, false religion and pure evil with the sugary southern kitsch of buttermilk, honeysuckle, maple syrup, cornbread, fried pork chops, okra, and the Confederate States of America...to an arresting, disjointed effect.
"Ruby knew that the White girls were always good girls, even when they were bad, but Negro girls started bad and could be anything after that."
Finally, if not obviously, "Ruby" is a story of black womanhood, of life without options, of slavery by other means and a struggle to keep something of one's self from being sold off to the lower bidder.