Ruby, the debut novel by 53-year-old Cynthia Bond, was published last April to positive reviews and modest sales.
The book had 20,000 copies in print – until Oprah Winfrey announced that Ruby was her new book club pick and her latest acquisition for Harpo Films. Now Penguin Random House is printing 250,000 copies of the paperback edition.
“I found the language and descriptions so vividly compelling,” Oprah said, “that sometimes I would have to take a breath and repeat the sentences out loud.”
A Texas native and former actor with New York’s Negro Ensemble Company, Bond now teaches therapeutic writing to at-risk youth in Los Angeles. Ruby was inspired by stories her students told her, and by a trauma in her own family. Decades ago, Bond’s aunt was shot and killed by sheriffs rumored to be Ku Klux Klan members, who left the body on her grandfather’s porch.
The madness such trauma can trigger is the theme of the novel, as embodied in the title character of Ruby, who was conceived when her mother was raped by a white man. Having escaped to 1950s New York City, where she attended parties with the likes of James Baldwin and worked as an occasional prostitute, 30-year-old Ruby is summoned back to the all-black East Texas township of Liberty where she grew up.
There, Ruby’s mental illness becomes undeniable. Ephram, a childhood friend and would-be suitor, whose own father was lynched, makes a project of healing Ruby and himself. It’s a tall order. As Bond writes of Liberty, “Some haints were still hanging from the tree they’d been lynched on. Some let the wind roll them like tumbleweeds from one side of the woods to the other.”
The language and potent imagery that grabbed Oprah is a welcome counterpoint to the brutality of the events depicted in the novel. Ruby isn’t an easy read – but its message and its artistry make it a compelling and vital one.