BY DR. GLENN ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
“It was a good service they gave Alice. Everything laid out so pretty,” Sister Ellison says to Sister Cullen, as they settle into their seats in Calvary Hope Christian Church. “Just don’t make no sense. We ain’t even safe in our own homes.”
When a reporter remarked that everyone was on edge, Sister Ellison almost laughed. “We black in Chicago, we born on edge.”
Indeed, everyone in “Saving Ruby King,’’ Catherine Adel West’s new novel, is on edge. Alice King has been murdered. Ruby, her daughter, wonders “how there can be a me without her.” Lebanon, Alice’s husband, a convicted killer, is the prime suspect. Layla Potter, Ruby’s best friend, is petrified that she will commit suicide. And for reasons no one understands, Jackson Potter, Calvary’s pastor, continues to help Lebanon.
Taking a page from today’s headlines, West declares that if you’re Black it doesn’t matter if you are educated, volunteer at church, have a wonderful family, and have never even gotten a speeding ticket: “Cops cover for cops. Blue covers blue. Blue doesn’t cover black.”
Strutting about with an air of invincibility, guns on their hips, “they know they won’t be held accountable for their actions. The United States no longer needs ropes and trees. “They have cops and the legal system to do their dirty work.”
West’s debut novel, “Saving Ruby King’’ is interesting and suspenseful. West’s portrait of the relationship among the grandmothers of Ruby and Layla (Sara, Naomi, and Violet) makes her principal themes – “secrets and lies make just as hearty a bond as love” and “the terrifying wonder of friendship and family” – especially compelling.
That said, the novel is, alas, flawed. Ruby’s decision to use her main characters (and Calvary Church itself!) as rotating narrators is a mistake. All too often, they sound more like Catherine West than themselves.
Layla describes “The Great Migration” from the South to Chicago following World War II.
“Normally smooth as chocolate brown marble,” she tells us, her boyfriend’s brow “is furrowed with concern.”
Questionable plot twists
Calvary cites Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool,” a meditation on rebellion and untimely death.
Jackson tells us that fixing a leaky pipe is a good time to get his mind off “other pressing matters like murder and the disintegration of my family and jail time.”
More important, plot twists and turns are not always credible. And West’s depiction of the church (whose ministers are either weak or wicked) and the implication that one cannot escape the consequences of family dysfunction and violence seem, at times, simplistic.
No tidy endings
As the novel concludes, Layla tells Ruby “Life doesn’t give us our happy endings.” West, however, provides resolutions that may seem inconsistent with the events that preceded them.
Taking responsibility for our actions, Layla adds, “has to count for something… And there has to be some kind of justice.”
And Calvary opines that although human beings drag their disappointments and sorrows, trials and tragedies with them, they have the potential to discover peace… Our history can shape the future but doesn’t define it.” How we relate to those we let in our lives “is up to us.”
The ancient edifice, you hope, is wiser than us mere mortals.
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.