Patty trusts Ruth because Ruth both understands and supports the lonely Patty. There is a camaraderie between them that is borne of shared struggles and trials. Ruth is African American and is a second-class citizen in Jenkinsville, Arkansas, while Patty is treated like a second-class citizen in her own family. Her younger sister, Sharon, is the perennial favorite of her parents and is adored for her singing and dancing talents. In the story, Patty's father boasts that Sharon, who hasn't had half the training Shirley Temple has had, is every bit as talented as the child actress herself.
So it is that when Patty maintains Ruth should spend some time telling her mother and father to serve some "sweetness" to her, Ruth commiserates with her young charge.
"Reckon they'd listen?" (Ruth).
"Guess not." (Patty).
Ruth sympathizes with Patty and tries to reassure her of her love. It is Ruth who keeps Patty's secret about Anton's hideout. She also protects Patty from being incriminated for stashing food away for Anton. Before Anton leaves, she fixes a wonderful meal of griddle cakes, bacon, and coffee for Anton and Patty.
When Patty is sent to the reform school, it is also Ruth who visits her. In all her interactions with Patty, Ruth never resorts to condemnation (as Patty's mother does) or physical abuse (as Patty's father does). She always encourages Patty to look on the bright side of things. More than anything else, she counsels Patty to be realistic and to try to make her own way in life despite her difficult upbringing; basically, Ruth tries to instill in Patty the same faith and abiding trust that has sustained her throughout her own life.
Ruth, I want you to tell me something. You know me better than anybody else. What's really wrong with me?
"I ain't nevah 'fore cast me no 'spersions on other folks' folks . . . but your folks aint' nevah gonna feel nothing good regarding you. And they ain't the number one best quality folks neither . . . but you've got yourself some irregular seconds folks, and you've been paying more'n top dollar for them. So, jest don't go a-wishing for what ain't nevah gonna be."
Because of Ruth's support and love, Patty eventually comes to realize her own worth. She begins to understand that her parents' estimation of her value has been deceptively wrong. She tells Ruth that the small whispers asserting the truth had initially been "too little, too weak to say anything. But day by day it gains strength." As the last scenes of the novel bring the story to a conclusion, Patty concludes that, even though Ruth has always been her trusted "life raft," it is she alone who can make a meaningful life for herself. In reference to the imagery, Patty must steer the "life raft" of Ruth's good advice and loving support to arrive at her own "land," her own good life.
I watched her. It was like watching my very own life raft floating away towards the open sea. And yet, somewhere in my mind's eye, I thought I could see the faintest outline of land. Then, it came to me that maybe, that's the only thing that life rafts are supposed to do. Taking the shipwrecked, not exactly to the land, but only in view of the land. The final mile being theirs alone to swim.