A highly-recommended read for your TBR list
Today, May 5th, is the National Day of Awareness and Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Gender diverse people (#MMIWG2S) in Canada. It’s a day to recognize the colonial violence that has been and continues to be committed, to honor and mourn the victims, and to call for justice.
One of the calls is for media to support Indigenous people by sharing their stories, so it seems propitious to share a recommendation for a novel by a Canadian Indigenous woman that touches on related topics of colonial violence.
Probably Ruby, by Lisa Bird-Wilson, came out here in Canada last fall and was recently released in the U.S.
The novel begins with a diagram of the protagonist's relationship web. This is the first clue as to how this novel differs from most others: it's not linear or chronological, but circular and filigreed. It's a map of Ruby's quest to belong.
Ruby is born to a teenaged white mother and Métis father, in a home for unwed mothers, put into foster care against her mother's will a week after her birth, brutally neglected in a foster home, then adopted by a white couple in a home that displays all signs of dysfunction, which the social worker simply chooses not to see.
“Home” is an overly generous word in all the uses above…
The novel offers a frank commentary on Canada's multiple failures with respect to its First Nations, including the residential school system, foster care and the adoption of Indigenous children. All of this (and more) severed generations from their kin, land, people and culture, with lasting traumatic effects.
Ruby is adrift, hurt, rejected, abandoned. She runs away, drinks, practices self-harm.
And she laughs. And she searches. And she makes “miskâsowin, belonging, out of words and her only memories—her blood memories.”
Throughout, Ruby demonstrates agency.
The story Lisa Bird-Wilson tells is raw and real, based in part on her firsthand experience as a Saskatchewan Métis and nêhiyaw (Cree) woman who was adopted:
“It's a convoluted path, but there are similarities between Ruby's path and my path to find my birth family. My birth father died at a young age. So I've spent time and I've written about imagining what life was like for him as an Indigenous man in the 1970s.”
Each chapter in this story focuses on a different person in Ruby’s relationship web: boyfriends, husband, girlfriends, adoptive parents, biological parents, therapist, social worker. The chapter about her father Leon is, I would say, the most visceral and tragic of all.
This back and forth in time and between perspectives can be confusing, but with patience we come to see that it offers readers a broader, deeper view of Ruby than she can ever present for herself.
For me, this created a profound sense of intimacy. Ruby became more than even a three-dimensional character. She materialized.
It wasn’t until I began to write this that I realized the brilliance of the title: Probably Ruby. By the end, I’m quite sure I have a picture of who Ruby is. Yet Ruby herself still has doubts. And how can I really claim to know her, a character? Or anyone for that matter?!
Maybe you’ve experienced this in life too? I have Someone forms a definite picture of who we are when we ourselves may still be wondering, exploring, becoming. And all too often we think we know exactly who someone is when all we can ever know is a sliver.
Regardless, from all I saw, I adored Ruby. Her "royal, attention-getting laugh" is weapon, defense and release. She knows the power of it, too: she uses it to draw others to her and mask what she really feels.
As fallible as she may be, Ruby is a tender and loving mother who tries to give her kids what she did not have: an extended family. Heartbreakingly, she puts up pictures of random indigenous people and invents stories about these kohkums, and moshums, and cousins.
Above all, I admired Ruby’s self-awareness. And I related to the crushing contradiction: just because she knows herself doesn't mean she can change her behavior.
As a white Canadian, I can never truly know the pain of Ruby's loss and sense of abandonment. Yet Lisa Bird-Wilson presents the emotional truth so powerfully and perceptively that I recognize elements of it in my own life.
It’s the mark of a brilliant novelist to portray the human connection between character and reader. It’s the brilliance of a novel that allows us to see the human connection between us all, whoever and wherever we may be.
Will you put Probably Ruby on your TBR list? Share your experience of the book if you already have or when you do? As always, I’d love that.
My thanks to Random House for the review copy, and to you for reading this recommendation.
P.S. Our Afternoon Delight is coming up next Friday, May 13 at 12 pm ET, on the theme of Peace. Pencil it in your calendar? Post and link to attend coming your way next week.
Lisa Carter is Founder and Creative Director of Intralingo, helping authors and translators write and readers explore stories. Lisa brings two decades of professional literary experience, including nine books and multiple other pieces published in translation, and nearly as many years of contemplative and compassion practices to her work. Her inclusive, engaged, caring presence inspires people to share their stories, create new ones and feel truly heard.
Do you have a story to tell? Let me help you write and publish your fiction or non-fiction. I still have space for a new book coaching & editing client in May. Book a chat or hit reply to share more about your project and discuss options!