Shocking, harrowing, deeply disturbing, but beautifully imagined and described, Cynthia Bond’s novel Ruby will haunt you long after you put it down. It is essentially a love story set in small town America with many twists and turns, but it is in no way conventional. The love isn’t only between a man and a woman, but also between a woman and her “babies”– spirit children who inhabit Ruby – and also the forest in the deep south where she lives. Even the trees take on a life of their own in this moving story of a woman whose spirit is tested to the limit:
The pines had been watching men and their fire circles since they were saplings. For nearly two hundred years they had seen upside down crosses glowing red in the dark, long before men in white sheets ever rode the horizon.
For Ruby, life is a constant struggle against the Dyboú – the demon which is determined to possess her. She is a victim, having seen things that no little girl should ever witness. The horrors are graphically described, too graphic for some perhaps. But this story has to be told. It is based on experiences the author had while growing up, which makes it even more horrific. Ruby is a survivor whose spirit refuses to be broken. She finds comfort in the ghosts or “haints” of her unborn children, and of children she has known who lost their lives at the hands of their abusers.
Ruby carries within her the physical and emotional scars of years of abuse by powerful men who believe they have a God-given right to do what they want with innocent young girls. She’s labelled crazy by her fellow Liberty townsfolk and shunned by all who know her, apart from Ephram Jennings, a kind-hearted soul who goes against the wishes of his smothering sister Celia; Ephram tries to show Ruby that he wants to love and care for her, rather than use her for his own gratification. At first, Ruby finds this hard to accept, but Ephram is a patient man.
That first night in the rain, with the door fresh and scrubbed, with her standing, confused, not knowing what to do, Ephram had told her, “Ruby you got to know I’m marriage bound, and I aim to treat you like the lady you is until that day offer up its glory.
Using colourful and lyrical language, Bond shows us aspects of life in the Southern American States that we would prefer not to see; devil worship and voodoo – “the conjure” – is an ever-present force, at odds with the seemingly devout worship of God. The people in Liberty are not free; they are enslaved by their superstitions. The world Bond creates is magical and dreamlike, yet suffocatingly real.
Despite the horrors in the book, there are glimmers of hope. Ruby’s story shows us that it is possible to triumph over evil, and that love can win through. When Ruby returns to Liberty making her home in the little shack in the “piney woods”, Ephram takes her a “white lay angel cake” made by his sister Celia. Bond, by way of an appendix, adds in the recipe for this cake. Her final instruction to those following the recipe is: “lay your burdens down and enjoy!” A reassuring, if poignant ending to a powerful and moving tale.