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Books: Not-so-precious Ruby

Books | Why Oprah and the critics like this Virtuous Woman

Issue: "The Jonesboro puzzle," April 11, 1998

A Virtuous Woman first came out in 1990, but it is still selling well and can be considered a current book. It's on the Oprah's Book Club list and is the first thing you see when you walk into Starbucks for that afternoon cappuccino. It has received good press. Christian authors like Reynolds Price and the late Walker Percy have praised its author, Kaye Gibbons, so we ought to take a look. Set in North Carolina tobacco-farm country, this is the story of Ruby, a woman who ran away from her stable home to marry an abusive migrant worker, then struggled to overcome her problems. Or maybe it's the story of Blinking Jack Stokes, the tenant farmer who marries Ruby after her first husband is killed in a barroom brawl. Readers can't be sure, for the first-person point-of-view switches between Ruby and Jack in alternating chapters throughout the book. Then, in the last chapter, the narrative changes to third-person omniscient and we hear from a multitude of new voices speaking in the first person. To confuse the reader further, the author never succeeds in establishing a dependable chronology. Is Jack speaking in real time? He seems to be. But if he is, what is Ruby's temporal reference point, since in the opening sentence Jack says she's been dead four months? A reader whose opinion I respect said it reads like an experimental Master of Fine Arts creative writing project. No wonder the critics loved it. Ruby is so-named from the Proverbs 31 passage cited in the frontispiece: "A virtuous woman who can find? For her price is far above rubies." Ruby. Get it? The moral of the story is that this woman who made a complete wreck of her life eventually straightens herself out and learns to cook and clean and be a good housewife and doesn't run home to mama when the going gets rough. So there's the female empowerment angle, which is probably why Oprah is pushing it. Ruby works it out on her own. With the Bible quotation and the flack from Mr. Price and Mr. Percy, though, I was looking for writing that shows forth Christ. I didn't find it. The character development comes from a strenuous exertion of the will, with no hint of larger forces at work and the presence of divine grace, at least the kind of grace described in the Bible. All fiction must deal with religion, Southern writing especially. Here, Jack and Ruby have the Ephesus Free Will Baptist Church just down the road. Sure enough, Brother Cecil shows up at the door one night, Bible in hand and salvation on his mind. Sparks begin to fly. As usual. Ruby remembers how Jack always "chased Cecil round and round on some religious issue, like the virgin birth or the seven-day creation, and how Cecil wound up on the short end, embarrassed in front of a whole gang of men, them no doubt egging Jack on." Ruby listens from the kitchen as Jack harasses poor Cecil, and she muses, "I believe that when I die my spirit and my body, tired and worn out as it'll be, will separate, slip apart, and my spirit will live and see all and know all it couldn't before, and it won't matter what becomes of the body. The spirit can and will go and do as it can and will. I get more comfort out of believing my parents and grandparents are with me that way, rather than that they're somewhere I can't get to until I'm dead, when I won't need to feel them the way I've needed to lately." In sum, the reader is asked to believe that an uneducated laborer is at heart a hard-edged existentialist, and his wife, a high-school dropout, is in reality an Emersonian New England transcendentalist-and all this by a special dispensation of Nature. No wonder the critics loved it. But why did some Christians?

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