“The Book of Ruth” by Jane Hamilton is a raw, harrowing, and yet, addictive tale of a young girl, Ruth, growing up in the small town of Honey Creek, Illinois, with an extremely dysfunctional family, with an intent to see the world for all its beauties, despite its disappointments and realities. Hamilton writes in first person perspective, which I think is brilliant in entering Ruth’s world. How often do our identities become preselections, labels, and destinies, chosen by other people?
Ruth reminds us to see people as people. So often in our world, we give people labels and diagnoses that could potentially limit our interactions and expectations for them. This is true of Ruth herself–we know at the beginning of the novel that people perceive her as being “retarded” and “slow” and never able to amount to much, so she doesn’t. Her proudest victory is to get placed into a regular English class, only for the teacher to determine she is not fit, and she gets sent back down. People expect much of her brother, Matt, who goes on to study comets, and Ruth ends up working at the local dry cleaner with her mother. As the reader, we never quite get an official label for Ruth–does she suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? is she dyslexic? is she mute because her mother yells at her? …and because we are never given a label or a category to view Ruth from, we are able to see her as a person.
We see May in the same way. Ruth describes May as being unpredictable, unhappy, and oppressive; May lost her first husband to the war, her second husband at probably her own doing, and she becomes callous from there. May is always criticizing Ruth, befriends Dee Dee, and together, they smoke, drink, and commiserate on their terrible lives together. We know that May is unhappy, and that she is unpleasant, and we might think she could perhaps be bipolar, but because there is never an official label on her, May is somewhat of a mystery, and therefore, Ruth encourages us to see May as a person–there’s a great moment towards the end of the novel where we see May’s humanness and we learn that she begins baking and storing cookies months before for the Christmas food drive at church–she knows she is too poor to make the cookies at Christmastime, so she spreads it out throughout the year, so that the ladies at church do not perceive her as poor as she really is.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Ruby, Ruth’s husband. Ruby and Ruth meet when he is floating, drunkenly, out on the lake. He later takes her on a date, and a short few months later, they decided to get married, and move into May’s house. By the reactions of other people, we can tell that there isn’t something quite right about Ruby, but because we see Ruby through Ruth’s eyes, she encourages us to see Ruby for his good characteristics–the way he treats her, calls her “baby” and makes her laugh when they play jungle kitty, his fascination with building bird houses, the way he romps around and plays with their son–even though Ruby is unable to keep a job, lays around the house, drinks, and watches T.V., Ruth still attempts to remind us of his redeeming qualities–that Ruby too, as much of a screw up and good for nothing that the town labels him as–serves an important and necessary role just like the rest of us.
As a teacher, it was slightly frustrating to not access the ‘labels’ for the characters because I just wanted to know how I could fix them–what kind of counseling, what kind of medication, what kind of situation they needed to get out of their circumstances. But, as Ruth reminds us, perhaps these labels prevent us from seeing people as just people. In the words of a great literary scholar, Josie DeGoede, the book asks us the contemplate the questions: “How often do we see things for what they ‘really’ are? Whose version of events is ‘truer’? Do we ever see people for the fullness of who they are?”
Ruth so desperately wants to find the happiness in her world. She realizes that her family is dysfunctional, yet she reminds us that it is not always like that–and she attempts to engrain those moments where ice cream was dropped on her head as a child, or the last family dinner they have–in her head, probably as a defense mechanism. I think, as people, we often fault ourselves to categorizing and labeling people, and Ruth reminds us that people are multi faceted. Yes, people can be cruel and unpredictable–they can say mean things to us, do irrational things, cut us off, but people also have wounds and insecurities they are constantly fighting–Ruby may not be able to hold a job, but then again, he also almost drowned when he was a baby, and his mother coddled him–May may be difficult to live with, but then again, her life did not turn out the way she intended.
I can’t exactly say that I “loved” the book, because there are so many painful and harrowing moments where you just want to pluck Ruth out of her situation and give her a hug, a warm place to stay, and an escape from her world. It’s certainly an agonizing tale, but Hamilton writes it in such a way that is beautiful, tragic, and gripping–all at the same time.
“We’re only passers-by, and all you can do is love what you have in your life. A person has to fight the meanness that sometimes comes with you when you’re born, sometimes grows if you aren’t in lucky surroundings. It’s our challenge to fend it off, leave it behind us choking and gasping for breath in the mud. It’s our task to seek out something with truth for us, no matter if there is a hundred-mile obstacle course in the way, or a ramshackle old farmhouse that binds and binds.” -Jane Hamilton, “The Book of Ruth”