A Haunting Jewel of a Novel
As heart-breaking as it is heart-warming, Ruby, Bond’s debut novel, tells the story of Ruby Bell and Ephram Jennings, spanning the decades from the 1930s to the 1970s and set principally in the Piney Woods of East Texas near the Sabine River, not far from Louisiana. “The people of the town,” says Bond, “are steeped in many of the beliefs that echoed from New Orleans. Haints, spirits, spells, and curses…a knowledge, in their bones that there is magic in the world. It is the air they breathe. It is the roots winding under the topsoil that they walk upon. It is the atmosphere of Liberty and all life and death and pain and joy happens within that weighted, yet unseen, substance.”
Liberty Township (a fictional version of Liberty Community) and many of the characters and storylines in Ruby are rooted in fact. Bond’s mother grew up on a farm in the small all-black town of Liberty Community, and her daughter’s first memories are of stories of life there. “I grew up with this town, this time, being infused into my spirit,” says Bond. Her mother’s stories ranged from simple anecdotes: of “stepping on a rusty nail and having to wear a slab of salt pork wrapped around her foot for an entire summer” to far harder times. Bond says, “As my sister and I grew older, my mother shared more of her story. Of her beloved sister being murdered by the Sheriff and his deputies for her relationship with a white man, of so many other siblings who, because of their skin color and the dehumanization of racism, made the decision to flee up North and pass for white. My mother told us tales of being picked on for being “yellow”, having light skin and straight hair. She told us how, for survival, she learned to fight to protect herself. How she became legendary, beating boys and girls three times her size. Maggie in my novel is this part of my mother’s life.”
Bond’s own memories are also part of this rich gumbo. The first seeds of the novel were sown many years ago in a writing class in response to a prompt to write about someone receiving a surprise. “Everyone,” she recalls, “was writing away furiously—it felt a bit like a quilting bee, each person sewing, attaching their own swatch of fabric. Then I had an image of a woman in a gray dress. It wasn’t a far-fetched image—I was wearing an oversized gray cotton shirt. I had been wearing it for days, driving around Los Angeles in a very old yellow Ford Fiesta, in a state of abject loss. I had just started piecing together scraps of my own forgotten childhood, and had great difficulty going about the business of everyday life. I sat down in that class and wrote: “She wore gray like rainclouds.” It helped. I believe writing is its own medicine. You present the problem, and if you follow the words, follow where the story leads, answers emerge. That day, sitting there in my gray voluminous shirt, an angel cake materialized, and a kind man to carry it and tend to great sorrow. I wrote, basically, the first arc of the novel—Ephram bringing Ruby a cake, in that 30-minute writing exercise.” Today that exercise has grown into three complete novels, the first of which is Ruby.
Talking about her writing, Bond demonstrates her immense talent for language: a gift which enables to her to bring beauty to her story, her characters and her setting, despite the great darkness that lurks there. It is important to note that Ruby is a dark book, at times very difficult to read. From a young age Ruby has been subjected to appalling abuse: years later she remains so damaged that it is easier for her to remain a victim than believe in the redemptive love offered to her by Ephram. “There are some very difficult scenes in Ruby,” Bond acknowledges. “But the reality is that whether we see it or not in our daily lives, there is an undertow, a reality in the world that pulls children beneath the surface. Some make it through, some do not. We can live our entire lives not knowing, yet it is still happening. Ruby is not a story of abuse, it is a story of healing and hope, yet it also asks its readers to bear the weight of seeing for a moment what over 2 million children live every breath, every heartbeat of their young lives. It asks its readers to bare witness…and through doing so, to know that it is possible to survive anything.”
She is right to emphasize that the novel is hopeful, despite the hard realities it portrays. Her writing has been compared to Toni Morrison’s and William Faulkner’s, a fact that Bond admits to finding “a little overwhelming.”
But it is worth noting that Bond comes from a highly academic family, and joyfully acknowledges the rich intellectual gifts given to her by both her parents. As an eight-year-old, Cynthia Bond sat on Maya Angelou’s knee and asked her why the caged bird sang. Naturally comfortable in literary company as a child, she will surely learn to be as comfortable as an adult soon, particularly given her undoubted literary talents.
For an interview with Cynthia Bond see https://aboutkatebraithwaite.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/qa-with-cynthia-bond/
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is a writer and historical fiction lover, originally from the UK but now based in Pennsylvania. She writes reviews and articles for the Historical Novel Society and a humorous language blog about American and British English at www.transatlantictranslator.wordpress.com