Before reading _The Book of Ruth_, I read many of the reviews here at Amazon. I had already made the purchase months ago after I saw the book on display at my local bookstore but I only just now got around to reading it this week. It was only after the fact, that I discovered it was an Oprah's Book Club selection. I never watch her, so I decided to check out the Amazon site to see if this book was worth reading.
I have to say, now that I've finished the book, I'm baffled at the number of people who found this story to be so depressing they couldn't bring themselves to finish it. I can only think that perhaps it was too much for some people to handle emotionally. Maybe it hit too close to home and they just aren't ready for it yet. To me, this story is a compassionate look -- never condescending or patronizing -- at a family so many of us can find in our own extended families and in our communities. I'm even more shocked that people would harshly criticize Jane Hamilton for writing a story that made them feel sad. Life's not an episode of the Brady Bunch. Bad things happen to all people and it's only human to feel sadness about those events. Why would you even think about reading a book with a review on the back cover that refers to the story as "a disturbing and beautiful book" if you were looking for an all-around happy tale?
Let me tell you what I see in _The Book of Ruth_ and why I see it as a story of hope...
I see some of the kids with whom I attended elementary school who were shunned by teachers and students alike because they were not able to keep up financially, socially or academically with their peers. Many of us are privileged enough to have enough money to provide for all our wants and needs. Likewise, most of us have healthy minds and bodies which allow us to work through much of what life throws at us. Too often, however, we take those gifts for granted and harshly criticize those who don't possess those same blessings and don't seem to know how to get a better life for themselves. The shallow and self-absorbed, the fearful will look at those people and think, "Ah, they're just poor because they're lazy." Or, "Why bother? She's not smart enough to get it anyway." Forget the qualifiers... they're people. And, until you know them, really know them, you're wrongly assuming a lot when you label them like that.
I see my sister and her girls in the characters of May and Ruth. So many times in my life I've wondered how hard it has really been for them back living in a dumpy little trailer in a small town in the northern U.S. Where did they find the strength to overcome circumstances they could never have avoided and what has happened to their spirits when they've suffered the repercussions of poor decisions they've made in their lives?
I see myself in Aunt Sid. I live over a thousand miles away from my family and every time I hear the news from home about my sister, I want so much to just rescue her. Sometimes I think she needs rescuing from herself, but also from the meanness of those around her who are so quick to judge her. But then I realize that we don't really even know each other anymore and it makes it hard to rise over the wall that distance and time and experience has built up between us over the years. I shake my head and wonder what's going to happen to them if things don't get better. It just seems like our lives have become two paths running in opposite directions and that we'll never find a common intersection again. And thinking about all of that is what made me sad when I read _The Book of Ruth_. It made me realize that sometimes just because you're family it doesn't mean that you will ever really know each other. At least that's how it has felt to me for the past 30 years.
Reading this book gave me hope. It gave me hope that my sister and her family might be able to change their situation somehow for the better. I'm not delusional; I know that the odds still aren't running in their favor and I know that they will probably not become pillars of the community. But at least they still might be able to find some happiness amidst what has now been over 25 years of almost daily doses of pain, humiliation, fear and heartache.
It also gives me hope for myself. It gives me hope that my family, which has suffered a lot of isolation and alienation in my lifetime, might be able to be better. If you've never grown up in a family (or within viewing distance of a family) like the one Ruth describes in this novel, you can't possibly know what that life does to a person. There are a lot of people out there who would count themselves lucky to deal with what you consider to be problems in your life. And, for that, you're fortunate. Just be thankful.
A review on the back cover of the book describes this as a story about "resiliency." That's about the most apt description I could imagine. Read about Ruth and you'll see how strong a tender person has to be in order to live.