There is something Dickensian about THE BOOK OF RUTH by Jane Hamilton. Ruth’s story is about resilience against the worst of odds; think Oliver Twist.
Ruth begins her story when she is around ten years old. That is when her father left in the middle of the night, leaving Ruth, her younger brother, Matt, and her mother, May. She knew that he would be happier picking grapefruit in Texas than living with May in Honey Creek, Illinois.
May shows great love and encouragement to Matt, who grows into the perfect student, graduates from high school, leaves Honey Creek and rarely contacts his family again.
With Ruth, May is mean and not in any way a supportive parent. At one point Ruth says that she feels like a plant that has been put in a pot and nobody remembers to water. The neglect that Ruth experiences at home has the expected affect in her school life. She has hand-me-down clothing that the other girls recognize, no one to see when she needs to start to wear a bra, and, of course, no help with schoolwork, only more responsibilities for housework.
Her lack of confidence has caused the school to put her in the “retarded” class and her one chance to be in a regular English classroom is a disaster. Because Ruth is telling her own story, the reader gets insight on how her creative mind works. We see that her life has little chance of moving beyond its unhappiness, surrounded by narrow minds and cruelty.
Even the marriage that she is so excited about is doomed to end tragically. Her husband can not keep a job; his days are filled with drinking and drugs. Everything points to a sad ending for Ruth and what had been dreams of a normal life.
Although this sounds like a very depressing book, surprisingly it is just the opposite. Ruth has such a unique way of looking at her world and the fortitude to get through so many horrible things. She does meet a few people along the way who open her mind to what could be a normal life.
Ruth made me think of all of our fellow classmates or people that we pass on the street that we ignore because they do not fit in our mold of the “right” people. Those who live in the wrong part of town. She gives us a view of a person who could have so much and is given so little. At the end of the book, as Ruth puts together her broken body, spirit, and life, we see what genuine hope looks like.
This is a wonderfully crafted book. Jane Hamilton has a use of the English language that is fresh and beautiful. This was her first novel and the winner of The Pen/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award. Ruth will stay with me for a very long time.