Talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey seems to have a thing for literary characters named Ruth. Her late September 2000 book club choice was Drowning Ruth from first-time novelist Christina Schwarz. Oprah's first "Ruth" book pick, though, was Jane Hamilton's debut novel. Oprah wasn't the only one to see beauty between the lines of pain -- over a decade ago Hamilton won the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel for The Book of Ruth. The excruciatingly bittersweet tale of an impoverished young woman's hard life in a Midwestern small town, The Book of Ruth proves that sometimes we've got to take the smallest of blessings that life offers.
"What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people's hearts," the narrator of The Book of Ruth begins. What follows is the story of a poor girl growing up and learning hard lessons in Honey Creek, Illinois. The older child of a woman embittered by life and determined to share her pain around, Ruth grows up the object of her mother May's seemingly bottomless well of "meanness." Her younger brother has the school-smarts to win him a scholarship out of their unhappy home, but Ruth's options are less stellar. She takes a job at the dry cleaners where her mother works, spot-staining by day and becoming her team's star bowler by night. But she dreams of the worlds and characters she's discovered in a blind neighbor's "talking books," and escapes often out into an outdoor world that sparkles magically in her moonlit eyes. She dreams, too, of what her life might have been like if she'd been born to her mother's estranged sister Sid, writing letters to her aunt that attempt to gloss over the ugly smallness of her life.
Life with May has settled into a predictable routine, but the equilibrium is broken when Ruth falls in love with a troubled stoner whose needy attentions make her feel wanted. Ruth and Ruby get married, but Ruby's inability to hold a job forces the young couple to stay in May's house. The older woman, whose first husband (and only love) was killed in World War II, is jealous of her daughter's small measure of happiness. The tension between Ruth's mother and husband abates for a while after the birth of Ruth's son Justy, but eventually the fragile balance in the tiny household is shattered by a sudden violence that will scar Ruth as completely as her entire life up to that moment has.
There is little enough joy to be found in Hamilton's debut novel, but what small blessings Ruth can scrounge she holds close to her heart. Her capacity for understanding and seeing is belied by her surface appearance of simpleness; but for all her quiet insight, she is unable to see the disaster headed her way. That this great pain may be the only thing capable of freeing her from the abusive prison of her life is a hard truth, but it is The Book of Ruth's final call: that the chance for redemption doesn't always come cheaply.