BY ELIZABETH HAMILTON
DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS
Cynthia Bond had just finished teaching a writing class when her cell phone rang.
“Hello, Cynthia,” said the voice on the other end. “This is Oprah.”
Bond screamed. When Oprah Winfrey old her she loved her novel “Ruby” and was going to make it her Book Club 2.0 selection, Bond could only scream again.
“Everybody turned and stared at me like I was crazy,” says Bond with a laugh. The screams were warranted, she says, because the selection was an unexpected validation for the novel she had poured more than a decade of her life into writing. It will also help Bond, a social worker, make a better life for herself and her 10-year-old daughter.
The novel is part romance, part ghost story, part mystery and part historical fiction. It tells the tale of Ruby, a beautiful woman from a fictional, all-Black town in East Texas called Liberty.
Ruby is sexually abused as a child. When she escapes to 1950s New York City as an adult, she turns to prostitution to survive. Now back in Liberty, she’s slowly descending into insanity because of her violent past.
Inspired by family history
Everyone in the town abandons her — some do worse — except Ephram Jennings, a church deacon who’s loved Ruby from afar since they were kids. The novel was informed by Bond’s experience of abuse growing up and her social work teaching writing to at-risk youths in Los Angeles, she says. It was also inspired by her own family’s history.
Bond’s mother was born in Liberty Community, an all-Black town in East Texas from which the fictionalized Liberty gets its name. In the 1930s, Bond’s aunt was murdered by a sheriff and his deputies because she had been involved with a White man. The men, rumored to be members of the Ku Klux Klan, shot her multiple times and threw her body on her father’s front porch in a sack.
“This story is something that’s lived in our family for many years,” she says by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I wanted to share that secret, but do it in a way that kind of wouldn’t hurt the reader.”
Beauty amid the pain
Her aunt and grandfather appear as fictional characters in the story. Through memorializing them in the novel, Bond says she hopes to bear witness to their lives as well as other victims of violent racism and abuse.
“It’s that question, ‘If a tree falls in the woods and makes a sound, is it heard?’” she says. “I want that fall to be heard.”
Bond’s only fear is that many would-be readers avoid the book because it’s rumored to be unnecessarily dark, so violent it’s hard to read. “I’m not a crime reporter,” she says. “I’m not a journalist. I’m a fiction writer, and one of the things I really tried to do is take care of my reader.”
How? By creating beauty amid the pain. She hopes her lyrical writing allows the reader to experience the violent parts of mankind more gently.
“I believe that when we see how textured the world is that we become better people,” Bond says.
It creates in us a greater capacity for empathy, she says, and seeing those who’ve suffered pull
through is a source of great hope.
Ruby pulls through. Because of Ephram, “for a brief instant, Ruby saw the treasures within her soul,” says Bond. That starts her on a path toward healing. It also gives us hope, she says.
Bond has already seen the book provide such hope for readers. After being selected for Oprah’s book club, Bond has heard from women who’ve experienced many of the things Ruby had.
One said she knew Ruby’s experiences so intimately she felt like she was Ruby herself. “Wow,” Bond says. “This is why I wrote the book.”