57 pages 1 hour read

Cynthia Bond


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


Ruby is the debut fiction novel by author Cynthia Bond. Published in 2014 by Random House, Ruby became a New York Times bestseller and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 in 2015. Set in an all-Black Texas township in the 1970s, Ruby follows Ruby Bell as she confronts her literal and figurative demons after returning to her hometown. Bond blends history with magical realism to tell a love story that explores themes of trauma and healing, the darker sides of organized religion, and the intersection of racism and sexism.

This guide refers to the Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 eBook edition of the 2015 Hogarth publication.

Content Warning: Ruby contains graphic descriptions of violence and child abuse, including physical and sexual abuse and assault, incest, infant death, and homicide; potentially upsetting depictions of racism; and intolerance toward gay people. These topics are pervasive in the text.

This study guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the n-word.

Plot Summary

In 1963, Ruby Bell moves from New York back to her birthplace, the all-Black Liberty Township in East Texas—distinct from the mostly-white Liberty 100 miles southwest but typically referred to as just “Liberty.” Upon her return, she moves back into the old Bell family home and publicly descends into a mental health crisis, living in filth and frequently wandering the town in a fugue state. She quickly becomes a subject of local gossip, with rumors swirling that her condition is the result of her own sins.

By 1974, most people in town avoid Ruby. The exception is Ephram Jennings, a soft-spoken Black man who is overlooked by most of Liberty. Ephram has been in love with Ruby since he met her as a young girl, but when he tries to approach her, she rebuffs him violently.

Ephram lives with his sister, Celia, who cares for him like a mother. Ephram and Celia are the orphaned children of Otha Jennings and Omar Jennings, who once held the title of reverend at the nearby In-His-Name Holiness Church. Christianity has a strong influence in Liberty, and Reverend Jennings was held in high esteem until the day Otha showed up naked at a church picnic and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. The reverend was ousted from the church in the subsequent scandal and, several years later, was found lynched by Marion Lake.

Chapters told from Ruby’s perspective reveal that her apparent “madness” is the combined result of a traumatic past and her ability to see into the spirit world. She is a magnet for the restless spirits of murdered children, known as “tarrens,” as well as a dark entity called a Dyboù. Ruby seeks to protect the ghost children from the Dyboù, who wants to consume their spirits as well as Ruby’s. To shelter them, she lets them live in her body, an experience that is painful and exhausting for her.

Slowly, Ruby grows to trust Ephram and lets him into her life. As he takes care of her by cooking, cleaning, and dressing her, she begins to reveal her past. Liberty is home to a group of men who practice black-magic rituals around a fire pit in the woods. When Ruby was a child, Reverend Jennings used her and other children in these rituals, which involved repeated rape and torture. Otha Jennings’s psychotic break was the result of accidentally witnessing the fire ritual after following her husband into the woods one night.

The reverend also introduced Ruby to commercial sexual exploitation at the age of six, taking her to the Friends’ Club brothel, where a white woman named Miss Barbara pimped her out to adult men. Ruby worked at the Friends’ Club intermittently until she was 14, when she fell pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl who lived for only a few minutes. During one of her stays, Ruby witnessed the only other Black girl at the brothel, Tanny, being murdered by a john. As an adult, Ruby feels worthless and lacks a sense of self due to her abuse. She is continually raped by men from Liberty who take advantage of her catatonic state. She is not used to the kind of gentle love shown by Ephram, and as a result she pushes him away. Still, he persists in his affection. As he grows to understand Ruby more, he helps her protect the tarrens from the Dyboù, who is growing stronger.

While Ruby and Ephram become closer, Celia is distressed by the prospect of Ruby taking Ephram, her brother, away from her. She drums up a rumor that Ruby is possessed by the Devil and seeks to have Ephram baptized to sever their affiliation. When a group of churchgoers shows up at Ruby’s home one day to drag Ephram away, Ruby is distracted by the confrontation and returns to find her ghost children gone. Assuming they were taken by the Dyboù, Ruby lashes out at Ephram for indirectly creating the distraction, forcing him away from her house.

Celia arranges Ephram’s baptism through the church. On the day of the ceremony, Ephram instead flees the scene and begins making his way back to the Bell land to reconcile with Ruby. Meanwhile, Ruby enters the woods alone to confront the Dyboù. As they fight, she recognizes the Dyboù as the cursed spirit of Reverend Jennings. She realizes that her hatred of herself and the world tethers his spirit to her like an invisible rope. Ruby severs the tie by proclaiming that she isn’t defined by her abuse. The Dyboù flees, and Ruby finds the ghost children hidden safely among the trees. She brings them home and—as she senses Ephram returning to them—resolves to teach them strength, love, and self-esteem.

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