“They all kinds of crazy. Some folk drink theyselves to stupid. Others so empty, gluttony take they belly hostage. And some get so full up with hate, it like to crack they soul. Hell, ain’t nothing strange when Colored go crazy. Strange is when we don’t.”
Cynthia Bond’s “Ruby” is a brutally difficult novel to read. The misogyny is venomous, deadly. Women in general, and the title character in particular, are savagely used and abused in a way that made me wince and gasp. This barbaric cruelty was deeply ingrained in the ethos of the small Texas town in which it is set, with ties both subtle and overt to religious teachings. At the center of the story is a preacher (who is more demon than human), who at one point in his early sermons openly lays his community’s plight on the shoulders of womankind.
“Otha watched her husband’s eyes go black as he talked about Eve. He told the story of how she alone baked evil in the bread of the world. Then he added, ‘Cuz who you think give birth to every nature of pestilence on this old planet earth? Locust and yellow fever – cotton blight and slavery – and when she took that bite of the apple, she open her legs and out come all of that, and worst of all – out come the White man!”
Just as the fall of man is blamed on Eve, so is the fate of both man and woman blamed on women’s devilment and men’s vulnerability to “nature”. Ruby, one of the most tragic of heroines I’ve encountered in literature, is held up as “a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high.”
But Bond’s novel isn’t all grim and grey. Her writing in and of itself brings lightness, color, poetry. Bond is notably adept at her use of metaphor and figurative language, as the samples below hopefully demonstrate.
“The kind of pretty it hurt to look at, like candy on a sore tooth.”
“Stupid as dirt before God blowed across it to make up some humans. Dumb as dishwater, light on suds.”
“Blood flowed in veins like molasses, sweat stuck to clothes like blessing oil.”
“Ephram felt their cold shoulder like ice cream on a cavity.”
“He’d always spoken like rocks falling.”
Bond also demonstrated a penchant for describing color – particularly skin tone – with a wide array of natural and edible terms: burnt cork black, tobacco brown, lobster red, dark as stone, chocolate Easter bunny, whiter than mile from a white cow in winter, cinnamon brown, banana pudding yellow, feather brown, toasted almond, shale brown, seal-colored, yellow sloth, dapper chocolate, plaster white, creamed corn, caramel glow, algae brown.
With hyperbolic emphasis on the protagonist (but broader application for all women), Bond brilliantly lays out the struggle Ruby meets when faced with anomalous kindness after a lifetime of brutality.
” If only he had been a sweetbay magnolia or a thistle blossom and needed only rain and sun. But he was a man and would require much more than that. Most of the men she had ever met had been devils or boys, and she already had enough of both. … Like a blast of heat burning through her, it was suddenly too much, this constant, unrelenting kindness, the gentle in the center of his eyes that never slipped and fell. His attention had filled the shallow bowl she’d set aside for joy.”
Though her body has been used and abused for the entirety of her memory, Ruby keeps her “self” under lock and key, becoming numb and distant when under threat. After a lifetime of trauma and distance, Ruby is radically changed in the end of the novel.
“She turned to her children. She had so much to teach them. To stand. To fight. To believe in rising. She would teach them. She would teach herself. She felt her heart beating steady in her chest. She could give each of them this knowing.”
Cynthia Bond’s story was relentless and ruinous, but I cannot deny its beauty, its sophistication, or its worth. “Ruby” is one of those books you may love to hate or hate to love. It is 98% bleak beauty, with a glimmer of hope at the last that saves its reader from utter devastation.