Wow! An incredible debut novel. Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is about the bond of female friendship, the road to redemption and the importance of the church in a black community in Chicago. I was rooting for Ruby King, a young girl who loses her mother, Alice to murder. She has lived a difficult life and is searching for strength. While the church community suspects Ruby’s violent father, Lebanon may have killed her mother, her best friend, Layla is the only one who understands the danger Ruby may be in by living alone with Lebanon and she is relentless in her support and protection of her best friend. Layla’s father, Jackson, the pastor of the church, knows Ruby’s family history and tells his daughter to steer clear. There are long kept secrets that hide the truth of the past, and through each of these characters, plus Cavalry, the church, we piece together the truth, giving us the full picture of the tragedies the have occurred, the violence that has been endured, the loyalty between friends, the struggles of a community and the environment on the south side of the city.
West sets the scene which shows Hope for Change in Chicago
“…a whole black world within a city; a world with only our people, who arrived barely a century ago in innumerable droves during the Great Migration, living in cramped tenements with the tenuous hope of more freedom than what was doled out down south. And now there is a weird dichotomy of stilted gentrification and unpredictable violence, and yet there’s tangible opportunity if one were to look beyond hasty misconceptions and blatant prejudices.”
She touches on the strained relationship between white police and black citizens…
“Notorious for cording favor in urban communities during elections, white politicians often look painfully out of place and horribly off rhythm in an ocean of brown faces, uncomfortable being the minority in the room, aching to return to neighborhoods in the suburbs where everyone looks like them. It’s awkward to watch this. It’s funny too.”
the notorious systemic racism that continues to impact law enforcement behavior as well as invoke fear…
“Their guns raised first, we all heard them shout ordered and we obeyed, but with the distinct fear all of us have when it comes to police, that no matter the level of compliance, we might still have our caramel-colored bodies riddled with bullets nonetheless.”
anD The unbreakable Connection between friends…
“…but more things than love bind people together, secrets and lies make just as hearty a bond as love.”
Catherine Adel West delivers a powerful punch with Saving Ruby King. In addition to covering a lot of ground when it comes to important issues like racism, police brutality, domestic abuse and female friendship from a black woman’s perspective, she also just tells a moving story of a complex family with beautiful prose and complex characters. I appreciated the map that shows Ruby and Layla’s family trees and I enjoyed the ride with these beautifully flawed, traditional families, their connection to the church and the glimpse they provided into life on the south side of Chicago. I look forward to discussing Saving Ruby King with my book club where we will be welcoming a special guest, author Catherine West!
Author Q & A
Q: You couldn’t have known millions across the country and the world would be protesting police brutality toward people of color and spreading the message of #BlackLivesMatter during the month of your book release. How do you feel about the timing in regard to your debut?
A: In terms of how I feel about the timing, I feel that it’s horrific it again took the deaths of black men and women to essentially get the response that we should have been getting in terms of social justice, and to be honest, marching and protesting will only go so far as we need long lasting, meaningful and systemic change in order to prevent more deaths like this.
The fact my book speaks on some of these issues (and the fact I started writing my book almost eight years ago) is testament African Americans have always believed there are inherent problems in our law enforcement and judicial systems. My book and others are literary witness statements to the reality black and brown people live with daily.
Q: Have you seen the June 21 NY Times best seller list for nonfiction and what are your thoughts? What are your hopes when it comes to the publishing industry and diversity?
A: I have of course seen the #BlackOutBestSeller hashtag and while it is a meaningful step towards a shift in publishing, it is only one step. There must be a top-down movement in terms of getting black people and other people of color into various departments and places of power in publishing. Our books and our institutions must reflect the make-up of our nation at large.
For me I won’t use the term hope. I will say what must change is the perception of black writers and writers of color as one-dimensional people with only stories of trauma and hardship. Yes, our books can be about these things as we need to address issues within and surrounding out collective communitiesm but we also need to see stories about black love, black culture, from romcom to mystery to science fiction to fantasy to literary fiction to nonfiction. Our stories are just as diverse as our people and publishing at large needs to search out and cultivate these stories en mass.
Q: Saving Ruby King at its core is about a deep friendship, loyalty and growing up in the church. How did you come up with the idea for the book? How long did it take you to write?
A: Saving Ruby King started out as something completely different. It was a way for me to understand the relationship I had with my father and how the black church played a role, for better or worse, in it. It evolved into a story of friendship, love, secrets, and black father-daughter relationships which we rarely see played out via literature or art at large. I’ve always been drawn to that aspect of Saving Ruby King. And to really craft a story such as this and get to the meat of what I actually wanted to be thematic elements, it took around five years as I’d never wrote a book before and had no idea what I was doing. In the end, I think it served me in terms of how I played with story structure and character development and it also bestowed a fearlessness in how I approached the book.
Q: As the saying goes, The truth will set you free. Ruby is finally set free when she acknowledges her truth. Where does she get her strength?
A: I think Ruby gains strength from watching her mother struggle and seeing what repressing hurt and keeping secrets will do to you. And, Ruby is a black woman. We are born with an innate sense of strength period. From our ancestors to our parents, black women come into this world, into this nation realizing our lives need to be a testament to our power and black women are above all powerful. Recognizing our power is indeed both a beautiful and sometimes tragic struggle, but there’s a victory in that. Ruby needed to go on her journey to realize these things.
Q: You were brought up in the church and live in Chicago, just like Ruby and Layla – which character do you relate to the most?
A: All of my characters have pieces of me within them so I refuse to pick one I relate to most because in all of their downsittings and uprisings reflect the wonderful and not-so-wonderful parts of my nature.
Q: The church is such a big part of life for both families, and I really enjoyed the narration from Cavalry, the church building. How and when in the writing process did you decide to give the church a voice?
A: It had to have been on probably my third or fourth draft. I had a former coworker named Luke Salazar read it and gave me the idea of making the church an actual character.
I loved it and ran with it because I love writing in a timeless, classic style and you can’t really do that when you’re trying to speak on current issues and your characters live in a present day urban city.
Writing Calvary into the book as a character let me creatively scratch an itch.
Q: If Saving Ruby King becomes a movie, (I think it should!), who would you like to see in the cast?
A: I have so many thoughts on this and it can always change but I’d love to see something like this:
Ruby King – Yara Shahidi
Layla Potter – Raven Goodwin
Lebanon King – Michael Ealy
Jackson Potter – Chi McBride or Christopher Jackson
Q: What will you be working on next?
A: I’m working on a prequel to “Saving Ruby King”. It follows Lebanon’s mother, Sara, during her years in Memphis, Tennessee.
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Kindred – Octavia Butler
The Chiffon Trenches – André Leon Talley
About the Author
Catherine Adel West is an editor living and working in Chicago. She graduated with both her Bachelors and Masters of Science in Journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana. Her work is published in Black Fox, Five2One, Better than Starbucks, Doors Ajar, 805 Lit + Art, The Helix Magazine, Lunch Ticket and Gay Magazine. Saving Ruby King is her first novel.