Cynthia Bond’s debut novel, “Ruby,” explores the redeeming power of love in the face of horrific trauma under the influence of faith, religion and myth. In the ironically named town of Liberty, Texas, the black residents live according to Scripture, heeding the beliefs that have become part of their being since their ancestors came to this part of the world as part of the slave trade.
Ma Tante, a conjurer, has a secret power that is as great as the Holiness church pastor, the Rev. Jennings, has secrets to hide.
Ephram Jennings, the somewhat slow-witted son of Rev. Jennings and his mentally fragile and later institutionalized wife, loves Ruby Bell, a beautiful but damaged woman who has returned to her family farm after decades away.
She’s been to New Orleans and then on to New York City to find her mother who abandoned her many years earlier. Celia Jennings has raised her brother Ephram after his mother was admitted to the state mental hospital when he was eight.
The experience and the events leading to his mother’s appearance at a church picnic wearing only her Easter hat, shoes and gloves, have shamed the family, but Celia works hard to be a leader in the Holiness Church. Recognized for her ability to witness to the Lord, Celia hopes to become the Church Mother — a coveted leadership position in the congregation.
Ephram’s love for Ruby began when they were children. He accompanies Ruby to Ma Tante’s house during a thunderstorm. He is there because of the downpour, but Ruby has an appointment set up by her friend Maggie. Ma Tante’s conjuring is to save Ruby from the evil that haunts the young girl.
While Ephram leads a simple life under Celia’s care, working at the Piggly Wiggly as a bag boy, attending church faithfully, and doing what he needs to do to support his sister, Ruby’s life takes a much more sinister turn.
Alone, she moves to New York and becomes part of the avant-garde culture of the city, eventually as a companion to a popular socialite. She abandons her slow East Texas speech, and dresses and acts as if she belongs to a better class.
Her return to her small town and family farm is to say farewell to her best friend, perhaps first love, Maggie, who has died after working as a laundress in the segregated east Texas of the midcentury.
Her resentment at returning builds as she waits on a train platform in the hot and uncomfortable colored section, carrying an Etienne Aigner handbag and a four-piece set of pink luggage. She is traveling west while many of her color are traveling east to join Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.
Regarded as damaged goods by Liberty’s residents, she fulfills their prophecy, living in filth and opening her legs for any man who happens by. She is so filthy that the men fill a bucket at the well, and dump it over her to clean off some of the dirt that clings to her body before they begin.
Ms. Bond, who works with traumatized children in Los Angeles as a teacher of therapeutic writing, uses her understanding of trauma and culture to construct the adults Ephram, Celia, Ruby and their peers become.
What will the human spirit endure to survive, and how can survival give way to hope and to life? Are the church and Scripture salvation or evil when given to the use and interpretation of those who hate? How does the mythology of our past — possibly generations past — and the social and economic climate of the present affect how we live and what we believe? Can a simple man be a redeemer, and can a damaged woman heal? Can a righteous woman forgive?
Coming together like tatted lace, Cynthia Bond reveals the evil and the good of people when the cultural norms set by color, religion and society complicate life, but the simplicity of love can heal and create beauty. Ephram’s commitment to Ruby and their future weaves hope into a story of pain and hopelessness. If the truth shall set us free, Ms. Bond shows us, in her story of grace, that love is truth.