The Book of Ruth (novel)

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Not to be confused with the novel of the same name by Helen Baker, or the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament..
The Book of Ruth
First edition
Author Jane Hamilton
Language English
Publisher Ticknor and Fields
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 328 pp
ISBN 0-89919-744-2
OCLC 17919102
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3558.A4428 B66 1988

The Book of Ruth (1988) is a novel by Jane Hamilton. It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for a best first novel in 1988 and was the Oprah's Book Club selection for November 1996.

Plot summary[edit]

An awkward midwest girl, Ruth, is growing up in the small town of Honey Creek, Illinois. All of her childhood, and most of her adult life, is spent wondering what would happen if she could get away. Her father, Elmer, left her family when she was ten, which left her mother, May, very bitter. May is extremely unhappy with and disappointed in Ruth because she is nothing like her shining brother, Matt. Matt is a mathematical genius with a scholarship to MIT, while Ruth is considered remedial. Their mother May is crushed when Matt moves away to Boston after graduation and she is left with Ruth, who takes a job with her at the local dry cleaner shop.

Ruth and May make two friends during this short time period: Deedee and her daughter Daisy (a fast girl with a loose reputation.) One hot night at the local lake, Ruth meets Daisy's friend, Ruby Dahl, a local male ne'er do well. Ruby and Daisy met through a court mandated course for drivers convicted of a DUI. One of many infractions in Ruby's history of petty crime. When Ruby later takes Ruth out on a date, he tricks her into losing her virginity to him. But Ruth continues to see him, believing in his early declaration of love. After several dates they decide to get married.

Ruby has no guests at the wedding, as his mother has died from pneumonia and Ruby's father has no respect for his son. It is revealed at this time that Ruby was a 'normal' baby until his mother, while drunk, falls asleep in the bathtub with Ruby where he almost drowned. Thus explaining the common assumption that he is slow witted.

Because Ruby doesn't have a job, after the marriage, he moves in with Ruth and her mother. May and Ruby do not get along and Ruth becomes very agitated because she had envisioned marriage as the end to her troubles. She discovers that she is pregnant and May becomes a warmer mother - advising Ruth to relax and coaching her on child rearing. Much to Ruth's dismay, her mother and Ruby get along much better during her pregnancy, with Ruby growing even closer to May after the birth of Ruth's son, Justin.

Over the years, Ruth becomes increasingly discontent, ultimately regretting her marriage to Ruby, who has descended into alcoholism and drug abuse, frequenting pornography theatres and demanding sex from Ruth. During the holiday season, Ruth discovers she is pregnant for the second time. The family tensions come to a head when, now toddler, Justin wants some baked sweets kept in the freezer in the in the basement. May and Ruth refuse him, with the excuse of not wanting his teeth to be rotten like Ruby's. Ruby becomes dark and declares that he is the man of the house, telling Justin to get the sweets. May gets upset and Ruby attacks her, cornering her in the basement and eventually beating and strangling her to death. He turns on Ruth, but stops when Justin appears and cries out.

After escaping to a neighbors house, Ruth is rescued by police and Ruby arrested. Ruth is sent to a special hospital for pregnant women with special needs to recover and give birth. Eventually she and her son Justin are taken in by Ruth's Aunt Sid. Justin has a hard time being with his mother and frequently has nightmares about the murder. It is revealed that Ruby was ultimately diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to a mental hospital for the crime.

Ruth must now cease to pine over her lost life, find a way to move forward on her own, and build a new life as a mother to her sons.