The Book of Ruth is Jane Hamilton’s first novel. It won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for a best first novel, and it was a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. Her second novel, A Map of the World, became an international bestseller. Hamilton lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin.
Honey Creek, Illinois, is so far north it is nearly in Wisconsin. Several blocks of white clapboard houses, a post office, a grocery store, and a church are considered the town proper. A factory is near the river for which the town is named. Although the citizens of the town are proud to have an industry, more than half the people in town work elsewhere. Past the factory are the farms; Ruth and her family live here. Ruth is not very bright, as everyone locally knows. She wonders if things would have been different if she had been born somewhere else; perhaps these things would have happened to anyone living in her house in Honey Creek. Her father, Elmer, drove away for good when she was ten, leaving his wife and two children for a life beyond Honey Creek. May, Ruth’s mother, is a large and unpleasant woman. Their family is not a happy one, which is undoubtedly why Elmer left. May told Matt and Ruth their father left because they fought too much and drove him from their lives.
Matt is a year younger than Ruth is; however, he is far more intelligent. May has nothing but disdain for Ruth’s lesser intellect; she even calls her daughter “retarded.” But Ruth is content knowing she is stronger than Matt:
The meanness that some people have in great quantities came to me early, because Matt became a prodigy.
While Ruth struggles in nearly every way, all the teachers rave about Matt in their smoke-filled lounge. First grade is a miserable experience for Ruth, and she spends time standing in the wastebasket for all kinds of infractions, such as not putting hands on May in a drawing she made. Matt skips second grade and catches up with Ruth for third grade. Teachers are always calling and taking Matt to special places like museums and showing him off to important people.
Ruth is still the brunt of cruel jokes and hates school; however, this year Ruth gets to know her Aunt Sidney. She is May’s pretty and reasonable sister. She actually likes Ruth and does special things for her when she can. In third grade, each student is supposed to choose a pen pal to write to every week to practice penmanship. All the other girls in class choose the girl sitting across the aisle from them. Ruth chooses Aunt Sid. She lives forty miles away, and she always answers when Ruth writes her. She is happy to be in contact with her niece. She gently corrects her grammar and makes her feel special. When Ruth reads Aunt Sid’s letters, she wants to be a better person.
May is nothing like Aunt Sid. May is negative and thinks the worst of everything. She is not curious about sunshine, and “neither heaven nor earth moves May to thought.” May was the oldest of eight children and had a difficult life, according to Aunt Sidney, the youngest child in the family. She had to work hard, but she also thought every other child had it better than she did. She only attended high school part time because she had to help take care of the farm and the children, and there was very little to bring her joy. Things were hard for her, but May chose to see only the worst. She never felt that she was loved, and she wanted nothing more than to leave Honey Creek and its bad memories behind her—until she met Willard Jenson. He made her happy, and they were married not long after they met. For once in her life, May was content; then Willard left to fight the war. May moved back into her parents’ home and was even somewhat happy for her favored younger sister, Marion, who got married soon after Willard left to fight. When May got the official telegram that Willard fought bravely but died in battle, she did not believe it. For ten years she convinced herself that her husband was simply hiding out somewhere waiting for a chance to come home. When Elmer Grey offered to marry May, she refused because she was already married. Her sister Sidney tried to get May to release her past, and when Elmer asked again she said “why not.” Her life with Elmer still did not inspire her to thought or happiness. May was thirty-eight when Ruth was born. Ruth believes May thought her baby was going to be born retarded. Ever since she was old enough to feel, Ruth has always felt she does “not have all the ingredients a person is supposed to have.”
Ruth loves Miss Pin, her teacher, for she inspires and encourages her—something she never gets at home. The reverend seems to like Ruth, but this year she is disillusioned about Jesus. Although she wants very much to believe, none of the stories seem to make sense to her. May is still angry all the time, wishing for something that can never be hers again. Ruth understands how difficult it must be to always want what she cannot have and for everyone in the whole town to know it. Aunt Sid is the one bright light in Ruth’s very limited and dark world. This is the only world Ruth knows until eighth grade.
Miss Finch is an elderly blind woman who lives in a farmhouse down the road from the Greys’ house. For five years, it is Ruth’s job to prepare and run the tapes on which Miss Finch listens to books. The elderly lady offers to let her listen, but Ruth is not interested in spending any extra time in the woman’s stuffy, old house. She figures she can cut out as soon as Miss Finch is caught up in the story; instead, she finds herself enthralled by the story of Oliver Twist. Ruth rushes off the bus each afternoon to hear the latest installment of whatever classic story they are listening to that day. Miss Finch loves hearing about the outside world, of which she is no longer a part, so Ruth shares Aunt Sidney and her letters with the older woman. Together they hear about exotic people and places, and Ruth asks Aunt Sid about all kinds of things Miss Finch would like to hear about as well.
The world around her is still cruel, both at school and at home with May, but she has an interesting experience with the Spelling Bee. Through a fluke or miracle, Ruth is the top speller in her class and qualifies for the Spelling Bee. May is proud of her, though she does not say so, and pins a brooch on Ruth’s freshly washed blue jumper for good luck. Miss Finch helps Ruth study in the weeks leading up to the competition. Both the brooch and the studying seem to pay off, and Ruth is one of the last handful standing. Then she gets a word she does not know, but suddenly the fire alarm goes off and everyone is shuffled out of the building. In the uproar, Ruth loses the brooch and her luck is gone. She misspells her next word and—worse—May tells her she will never trust her with anything valuable again. Aunt Sid came to the event to surprise Ruth, but the girl is so devastated she can barely acknowledge her favorite person or the gift she brought. Later she sees it is a tape recorder and five or six tapes. Even that does not compensate for the disappointment she feels for herself and from May. Miss Finch encourages Ruth, and there is still a flicker of light in the young girl.
In high school, everyone thinks Matt is cute despite his acne. He plays doubles on the tennis team, though he never takes a shot. He is good at cooperation. The teachers are all still enamored of him and have high hopes for his future. He comes home every day wearing his calculator clipped to his belt—prepared for any math emergencies—and hibernates in his room until mealtime. He spends his time “exploring all the avenues in his head.” Ruth is shy around him because she knows how smart he is, while she feels “smaller and meaner than a bee sting.” Matt is too good to speak to either his mother or his sister.
Ruth can tell her mother is lonely; her son never speaks to her, and she has a pitiful daughter. May eventually finds a friend, Mrs. Foote, who has even more troubles than May has. Her son, Randall, is an overweight slob, nothing like Matt, and her daughter, Daisy, is always in trouble because she is beautiful and boy crazy. Mrs. Foote thinks May’s family is quite normal and trouble free, and in comparison perhaps they are. Ruth and Matt graduate together, class of ’73. Ruth did not learn a thing; she was too busy dreaming about the worlds she has been exposed to through Miss Finch and her tapes. Soon, though, Miss Finch begins losing touch with the realities of her daily life, and her family takes her to a nursing home. Ruth is devastated at the loss of her good friend. Matt did not earn anything less than an A in any class during high school, so he gives the speech. Ruth is stunned to hear her brother explaining how he would achieve peace in the world because he never even speaks a complete sentence at home. She knows when Matt gets home that night he will call her a moron with his eyes, just as he does every other night.
After graduation, Matt attends a summer camp for math and science geniuses in New York City, and Ruth begins working with May at the dry cleaners. Matt is going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, but Ruth knows he is already gone, and she is left in Honey Creek with May at Trim ‘N Tidy. In a certain way, she and May become friends. They work together all day and spend each evening together, and they at least become compatible. Each payday Ruth gives her check to May and gets five or ten dollars in return; she stuffs the money in a bag Elmer once gave her. Ruth and May join the Trim ‘N Tidy bowling league, and Ruth is consistently the high scorer for their team. May seems to be more accepting of her daughter, but Ruth is sure things would be bad if she were embarrassing the team. Sometimes May misses Matt so much she cries. Although he has only sent a few postcards since he left, May tells everyone how often he writes, how he is part of so many campus organizations, how every girl wants to date him, and how he has invited her to Boston for parents’ weekend. At home, though, May cries when she thinks of her genius son. Ruth wonders if there is anyone else in the world like her when her heart gets heavy.
This is kind of a honeymoon time for May and Ruth. They go bowling three or four nights a week, and Ruth is queen of Town Lane. On Friday night’s, they go to Johnny’s for a fish fry. The Footes (Dee Dee, Randall, and Daisy) usually join them. Dee Dee and May are content, but the others are not quite as happy. Randall is obsessed with food and always wants to hold Ruth’s hand, which Ruth finds abhorrent. Daisy has been in so much trouble, including a serious drunk driving accident, that she must be accompanied by a family member every night as part of her probation agreement. Ruth thinks they could all be characters in her favorite Dickens novels, and she begins to fear they will all be living this life forever. In May, Matt writes to tell his mother he will be staying in Boston for the summer to do research and living in an apartment with a boy named Virgil King. May has been looking forward to having her son home, for Matt had only spent two days in Honey Creek at Christmas, and he only actually spent an hour with his family; he was more interested in seeing other people in town. May’s immediate reaction is to ask if “Virgil” is a Black person’s name. Ruth thinks about saying of course it is, just to drop Matt from his superior standing in May’s eyes, but she figures May might actually do some harm to herself if she believes it. That summer will change all of their lives.
It is very hot on Independence Day, and Daisy comes to take Ruth with her for a drive now that she has her license back. They go to a local lake to get some relief from the heat, and Daisy decides to take a boat lying on the beach. They row to the middle of the lake, and there they see an unexpected sight. A man is floating in an inner tube in a state of perfect contentment, with a six-pack of beer floating nearby. He is drifting, eyes closed, in the moonlight. Daisy knows him; they have the same probation officer. She calls him Mr. Ruby and splashes water on him. He is not shocked by the water and lazily opens his eyes. The conversation between Daisy and the man is short, but Ruth feels that he is looking only at her. It makes her heart stop beating. Three nights later Dee Dee picks Ruth up for bowling because May has a headache (undoubtedly caused by Matt). As they arrive at Town Lanes, Ruth sees Mr. Ruby staring at the skies and smoking. She is shaken by the sight. That night Ruth bowls a nearly perfect game, and she senses him watching her. She feels that he somehow sees her as beautiful, or at least interesting. When she realizes he is gone, her streak is over. She does not see him again for a week, though she looks for him everywhere. One day he shows up at the Trim ‘N Tidy and time stops for Ruth. Ruby is most handsome when his mouth is closed, for he has many crooked, rotten, and missing teeth—but he is mesmerizing to Ruth. When he comes back the next day to pick up his clean sweater, he asks Ruth, all in a rush, if she would like to join him for a drink at the bar across the road after work. Ruth asks May for permission and they go. They sit in relative silence, eating peanuts and sipping beer, until things grow more comfortable. When Ruby tells her about fishing as a young boy, thinking about nothing much but feeling “warm and peaceful,” Ruth knows they are “meant for each other.”
After the third beer, Ruth tells Ruby about Aunt Sid and all the things she likes and longs for, hoping he might make her dreams come true. Instead, they go to a spot outside of town and Ruby takes advantage of Ruth’s sexual ignorance. She is inexperienced about such things and is humiliated by the experience, though Ruby tells her she will soon come to love what they just did. At Trim ‘N Tidy the next day, Daisy comes in and teases Ruth about being in love. Ruth simply dissolves in tears. They leave the dry cleaners’ for a short break, and Daisy explains much about sex to Ruth. Ruth understands but knows her friend is not really happy, no matter how wonderful she tries to make her promiscuous life sound. Back at work, Ruth wishes Mr. Darcy (Miss Finch’s and her favorite character) would appear and rescue her from her life.
She dreams about Ruby all the time, but it is weeks before she sees him again. He walks into the dry cleaners and shyly asks her if she wants to go for a drink. Ruth agrees. After they sit down, Ruth mumbles that she is not ready for any more of what they did last time, and Rudy looks down, ashamed and saying she no longer likes him. Ruth assures him this is not true; he can kiss her all he wants, she says, and he does. When Ruth arrives home, May is her usual cruel self. She says Ruby has a girl’s name and looks like a witless fool. She accuses him of criminal behavior, but Ruth knows he only got in trouble for drunk driving, which even May does on occasion. Ruth feels irate and accuses May of driving Elmer away, of squishing him down so much that he finally left. May raises her hand to hit her daughter, but Ruth begs her mother to just let her be happy for once. May reconsiders and simply says that Ruth had better not come home pregnant and unmarried or she will kill her. Ruth is sure May is just wondering what will happen to her if Ruth leaves and is afraid of being old and ugly and alone. May makes sure Ruth knows what having children cost her and makes it clear Ruth owes her something. Ruth understands she must pay double, since they both know Matt is not going to cover his share of his mother’s misery.
Ruby joins them on their bowling nights. He is no good, but for the first time Ruth feels like she is part of a rather quirky family. At this time in her life, Ruth does not stay in touch with Aunt Sid; she is afraid her aunt would not like the things she is doing. Her letters are cursory and merely skim the surface of her life. When Aunt Sidney writes back and asks if she has read a good book lately, Ruth is ashamed. The characters she loves are still in her head, but now they all have an amazing similarity to Ruby. One night Ruby is drunk and morose; Ruth cheers him up by telling him she loves him. Ruby immediately dances ecstatically around the bar; a few days later, at the end of August, he asks Ruth to marry him. She agrees. After she collects her thoughts, Ruth tells May her news, but May snorts derisively and dismisses the idea. She asks how they will live and assures Ruth that she will not support them. Ruth is persistent and says what May wants to hear: they would like to live with May until they get settled and Ruby finds a job, and they will do all the heavy work around the house. May finally consents—but not without more insults about Ruby.
The October wedding will be small. Matt has agreed to come home for two days, which makes May happy; Aunt Sid has agreed to come, which makes Ruth happy. Although May still insults Ruby, she is eager for her son to arrive. Ruth prays all the time that things will work out for them in her mother’s house. Matt arrives home to walk his sister down the aisle. Ruth wears May’s wedding dress, the one she wore for her wedding to the man she loved, Willard Jenson. May tells her she is not awful looking. Aunt Sid brings pearls for Ruth to wear and keep. This is the first wedding Ruth has ever seen, except for those on television, and she has trouble staying focused on the reverend’s words. She thinks he told them all about the perfect happiness that would be theirs in the ideal state of marriage, but she is not certain. Then it is over and the pair flies down the aisle after a smacking kiss. Aunt Sid is gracious to her niece and tells her how lovely she looks, but Ruth knows she is dismayed about this marriage. She is the first to leave, and Ruth is sure her aunt—the only person who really knows her—no longer wants anything to do with her.
Married life is not ideal, but they are relatively happy. Ruth continues working, May continues to belittle her new son-in-law, and Ruby tries to work but fails miserably. He is tardy because he stays up all night and then wants to sleep all day. Ruth does not mind that her husband does not work; she just wants him “to have a wonderful time being married.” The one thing Ruby does well is build ornate birdhouses he can sell for three dollars. They still go bowling sometimes, though May does not go anymore; perhaps she is embarrassed at Ruby’s outrageous, drunken antics. Other times they go to dances or the theater, the one playing “dirty pictures.” Ruth writes and rewrites a letter to Aunt Sid, telling her how happy she is. She does not tell her that Ruby makes it hard to live with May because he tracks mud onto her clean carpets and refuses to clean up the mess. While Aunt Sid’s reply is enthusiastic, it is forced, and Ruth can tell. Ruth gets promoted at Trim ‘N Tidy, which further infuriates May.
May does all the cooking, and she is not a good cook. As Ruby becomes more outspoken in his criticism about her cooking, May’s concoctions grow worse until one day she explodes and tells him he can do the cooking from now on. When he does, she insults his cooking until they have both had enough and both refuse to cook. When Ruby leaves, Ruth goes to Daisy for comfort. It is a disastrous night and the newlyweds have their “first lovers’ spat.” All Ruth wants is for her husband to get along with her mother, but it does not seem likely.
Ruth learns of Ruby’s early life much later from things she pieces together and from talking to Ruby’s counselor, Sherry. He and his two sisters grew up in nearby Stillwell, in an old, rambling house by the river. Rueben (later shortened to Ruby) was born after his sisters were nearly half grown, and he was seriously sick when he was born. He had an operation on his stomach and was better; however, several weeks later he stopped breathing. His mother had him in the bathtub with her while she was drinking and she fell asleep; the paramedics had to breathe life back into him, and Ruby’s mother spent the rest of her life spoiling the son she almost killed. Ruby’s father, on the other hand, was cruel and punished him harshly when his son did not do what was asked of him. His mother did as many things for him as she could, and Ruby took full advantage of her. In kindergarten Ruby refused to take the intelligence tests all children were given; instead he shoved all the puzzles off the table in defiance. When Ruby got in trouble at school, his father severely beat him while his mother tried to protect her son and avowed that he did nothing wrong. Ruby hated school because he was different and that made him the target of merciless classmates’ teasing. Eventually Ruby always resorted to violence, which was the pattern established by his father “over and over, thousands of times.” His mother cosseted him; it did not take very much effort on his part for her to say he was a smart boy and a good boy. Consequently, Ruby spent much of his time with his mother doing domestic things like shopping or gardening. His next-door neighbor, old Uncle Jake, taught him to build birdhouses. Ruby discovered Uncle Jake in his tool shed, shot dead, but did not tell anyone for two weeks. Ruby and his mother sat together and watched sports on the television while his father just got increasingly disappointed in the son who was not like other boys.
Ruby tried many jobs but none of them was right for him. At Dairy Queen he could not remember how to make a banana split, so he told customers there were no bananas. At Sears, where he worked in the shipping department with his father, he wet his pants because he shipped the wrong thing to the bank manager and was afraid he was going to be killed for such errors. For awhile his mother let him just stay home and enjoy what he loved—music. Soon, though, she reminded him she would not always be here and made him go find a job. He was able to work at a gas station, where he was treated with some patience; he did not have to get angry and frustrated, and he was not laughed at if he made a mistake. Soon his asthmatic mother had a breathing crisis and was forced to quit smoking (which she used as an escape from her cruel husband), and suddenly she was not as patient with or kind to her son. Ruby’s sister came from Florida and took their parents back home with her, where the air was better. There was no room for Ruby, so he was left alone. His life spiraled out of control, and he began destroying other people’s possessions. He stole a car with which he bashed other people’s cars, he broke into homes and ruined antique furniture, he shoplifted, and then one night he “went crazy on drugs” and beat up his former manager at Sears. The man did not press charges so Ruby did not have to do any jail time; however, he was assigned to meet with a probation officer. That was Sherry.
Ruth likes it when her husband talks about his mother, but he always gets choked up; she died the year before they were married and at the end of her life did not even remember she had a son. Ruby does not like to think much about the past. Ruth knows he has all the ingredients of a good person inside him somewhere, even if he does “do something haywire” every once in awhile. May often suggests he should be put in the “loony bin,” which she knows hurts her daughter to hear. One night, after Ruby and his mother-in-law have another meaningless but cruel altercation, Ruby gets drunk and jumps off a bridge into the frigid water below. He is rescued and May ultimately pays the hospital bill, but Ruth knows her mother will taunt Ruby about the incident. That winter is difficult for Ruth because Ruby is not completely recovered and because her friend, Daisy, is away at beauty college. Bowling as no fun without Daisy, so Ruth quits bowling. Her letters to Aunt Sid are sparse and not altogether truthful, for her aunt still asks her about books and does not seem to understand she is no longer the girl she once was.
On Christmas Eve, Daisy and her mother (and Randall, but he simply sits on the couch eating chips and watching Love Boat) come over and they all get drunk. Ruby “conducts” his tipsy choir, Daisy does a partial striptease, and they all dance. May and Ruby are “a perfect match for a couple” as they polka and foxtrot around the kitchen. In January, Ruby becomes the “Can Man” at the recycling center; he only works three hours on two Saturdays a month. The winter is long and cold, and Ruth is feeling “mixed up, being a wife and a daughter under the same roof.” May sucks all the joy out of being a newlywed and continues to be bitter about her daughter’s superior position at Trim ‘N Tidy. Tempers are frayed and even the smallest...
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