The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Probably Ruby
Probably Ruby
A Novel
by Lisa Bird-Wilson

Hardcover (12 Apr 2022), 288 pages.
(Due out in paperback Jan 2023)
Publisher: Hogarth Books
ISBN-13: 9780593448670
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

An Indigenous woman adopted by white parents goes in search of her identity in this unforgettable debut novel about family, race, and history.

This is the story of a woman in search of herself, in every sense. When we first meet Ruby, a Métis woman in her thirties, her life is spinning out of control. She's angling to sleep with her counselor while also rekindling an old relationship she knows will only bring more heartache. But as we soon learn, Ruby's story is far more complex than even she can imagine.

Given up for adoption as an infant, Ruby is raised by a white couple who understand little of her Indigenous heritage. This is the great mystery that hovers over Ruby's life—who her people are and how to reconcile what is missing. As the novel spans time and multiple points of view, we meet the people connected to Ruby: her birth parents and grandparents; her adoptive parents; the men and women Ruby has been romantically involved with; a beloved uncle; and Ruby's children. Taken together, these characters form a kaleidoscope of stories, giving Ruby's life dignity and meaning.

Probably Ruby is a dazzling novel about a bold, unapologetic woman taking control of her life and story, and marks the debut of a major new voice in Indigenous fiction.

This excerpt contains sexually graphic content

Kal
2013

"I like to be in charge," said Ruby. "I pretend I like watching him jerk off, just so I won't have to touch him. My commitment level's kind of low on this one."

Kal's face showed no emotion. Instead he looked at the sunglasses resting on top of Ruby's head. Kal's office was in the interior of a downtown building and had no windows. Outside, it had been raining for days. He asked, "Is it sunny out there now, Ruby?"

His question made her laugh. She had a royal, attention-getting laugh, big enough to be heard out in Kal's waiting room. Which was good. Ruby wanted anyone out there to know Kal and she were having a great time. Try and top that, sucker. That's what she hoped her laugh said to any waiting client she'd subconsciously pegged as a rival for Kal's affections. And by "anyone" she mostly meant the shiny, obvious "Lori," seen on one occasion leaving his office and stopping to make an appointment on her way out; and, another time, waiting for Kal as Ruby left. In an effort to make him even more uniquely hers, she tried out a variety of nicknames on Kal. "Hey, Mister K," she'd said when she arrived today, to which he just shook his head and smiled, motioning for her to come in. She was pleased to make him smile like that.

Ruby carried on with the chitchat about her new boyfriend. "I say the dirtiest things to him, Kal. To get it over with quicker." 

He nodded. 

"Why are guys always so turned on by the idea of coming on your face?" she asked, pausing so he could think about that one. Ruby knew Kal was divorced and had recently started dating. He often told her personal things about himself as a way to relate to what she was going through. Because of this, he was her favorite kind of counselor. She listened carefully to his disclosures.

Sometimes she hit it off with a new counselor and sometimes she didn't. She usually gave it two appointments to decide, but honestly, a lot of them only deserved one chance, and even then she'd been known to cut the first hour short.

Take the counselor before Kal: Larry, with the huge wooden cross around his neck. So effing big, as if he was compensating for something. Or dragging it around doing penance. He had a serious Jesus complex, that one. She decided quickly: Jesus-counselor was not going to get the benefit of her attention—he said one thing about the "sanctity of the marriage bed" and she threw up a little bit in her mouth before she fled. After that she made sure to tell the assigning agent at the insurance company that she didn't want "Christian" counseling, thank you very much. 

In her experience, the people who stressed things the most or the loudest were the first ones to break their own rules. That's why she always liked to hear one of her counselors say they would "never" date a client. When they said that she couldn't help but think, Great. Now we're getting somewhere.

Ruby always fell for her counselors. That was the point, really. I mean here was this person and they only had eyes and ears for you. How could you not be crazy about that? You got to be in a room alone with someone who listened hard and cared about what you were saying. Ruby was also counselor-monogamous, as far as that went. That was, if monogamy meant one at a time, one after another. 

"You're really aware of your anxiety," Kal said during their first or second session. "You just don't quite know how to manage it." He was right. She hated to be alone. She sometimes felt she'd had kids to save her from being alone. But she could still be lonely. 

"I'm not all parent," she told Kal once. "I'm a person, too. I'm often selfish and greedy." In some ways, the boys were the only thing, and in other ways she needed so much more to save her from her sadness. 

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Probably Ruby by Lisa Bird-Wilson. Copyright © 2022 by Lisa Bird-Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The events of Ruby Valentine's life don't unfold chronologically in Probably Ruby. Why do you think Lisa Bird-Wilson made this choice? How did it influence your reading experience?
  2. Discuss Ruby's relationship with her adoptive parents, Alice and Mel. Does this change over time? Who owes who an apology? Who owes who forgiveness?
  3. Ruby is drawn to people who are also part Métis, like her counselor Kal and former partner Moe. Why do you think that is?
  4. Bird-Wilson writes that Ruby "spent her life being told she was chosen but constantly needing people to prove it." How do you see this playing out throughout the novel? Which characters "proved" this to Ruby in the end?
  5. How does her boyfriend Bart's death continue to affect Ruby throughout her life?
  6. Discuss how Ruby's addiction began. What are her triggers? Why do you think she continues to relapse?
  7. Did you feel Ruby's birth parents, Leon and Grace, had agency over their own lives and choices? Why or why not? What forces outside of their control were each of them dealing with?
  8. After Grace gives birth and goes back to her former life, "Everyone around her developed a case of collective amnesia. As if the Asylum weren't real, as if Grace hadn't endured the pain of birth, as if the dark-haired baby never made passage." How does it affect a person when their memories and experiences aren't validated? Have you seen this phenomenon before? If so, where?
  9. How does Ruby attempt to avoid the mistakes her parents made with her while raising her own children? Do you think she will be successful?
  10. When Ruby and her biological grandmother, Rose, finally meet, Bird-Wilson writes, "They talked for three days, non-stop. "How does meeting Rose change Ruby's sense of self? In what ways does Rose fill a hole that pained Ruby her entire life? What is the impact of meeting her family on Ruby's relationship to the "family pictures" she cultivated and collected over time?
  11. How much of who we are do you think is coded into our DNA? How much is due to the circumstances of our upbringing? Does any of this explain—or fail to explain—Ruby's life and choices?
  12. In what ways do you think Ruby's sense of self would be different if she'd known her birth family, or if her adoptive parents had been more open with her about her roots?
  13. What roles do prejudice and discrimination play in the novel—and in Ruby's life specifically? What about the concept of "passing"?
  14. "Sometimes we choose our family and sometimes we are chosen," Bird Wilson writes. "We're lucky and we're unlucky." In what ways was Ruby lucky and unlucky? Which members of her family did she choose?
  15. In what ways did Probably Ruby surprise you, or cause you to consider a different perspective? Discuss.

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Hogarth Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A novel in stories exploring the disparate threads of a Métis woman's identity and her familial and romantic relationships.

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Lisa Bird-Wilson's debut novel Probably Ruby opens with the titular central character meeting with her therapist, Kal, and considering how she might transition their relationship into romantic terrain. Kal is Métis, like Ruby, and through a conversation about their childhoods, it is revealed that she "didn't grow up with her 'real' family." After her unsuccessful attempt to seduce Kal, Ruby goes to a bar, where she runs into and goes home with an old flame. These interactions introduce Ruby as someone desperate for intimacy, particularly with other Native people. In a later session, she tells Kal about her fear that "people she loved might just disappear or be withdrawn at any moment." This feeling is at the center of Bird-Wilson's complex, searching and often very funny protagonist.

The novel unfolds as a collection of interrelated stories about Ruby, as well as characters central to and on the periphery of her life. We learn that Ruby's mother was white and her father Métis, and that she was adopted by a white couple as a baby. The nucleus of Ruby's life is the lack of knowledge about her roots, her "real family." As a child, she makes up fictions about these unknown relatives, and as an adult she hangs pictures of Native strangers in her home and tells her children they are family. "She created a mythology for them," the narrator explains, "To try and save her kids from the longing she'd felt her whole life."

The chapters are non-linear, advancing and retreating through Ruby's life in a disjointed fashion, many revolving around her romantic relationships. In high school, she runs away from home with her boyfriend, but she cannot outrun her fixation on the murder of a Cree man, Leo LaChance, by a white supremacist (see Beyond the Book). She becomes entangled with both men and women throughout adulthood, sometimes simultaneously. She appears in and disappears from people's lives, seeking to fill the empty space that is her desire to know where she came from and, consequently, herself. She comes to know members of her biological family, but by the time she makes these connections, her father has been dead for 16 years. She is haunted by grief for this person she never knew, but who was an intrinsic part of herself. At the same time, she is heartened by her relationship with her maternal grandmother, Rose, a woman whose tenacity and tendency to flee her troubles Ruby finds relatable. Bird-Wilson's background as a poet is apparent in her rich, evocative language. Rose longs to return to the home of her birth, "Where the sound of shaken leaves on dry branches ripped across the acres like soft gossip." Chapters that feature the perspectives of Ruby's biological mother, father and other relatives heighten the book's complexity, showing the reader where Ruby has come from in ways she cannot access herself.

Probably Ruby is a deft work of characterization. Though some might find the novel's disordered structure a challenge, it is effective in exhibiting Ruby as the sum of her parts — a person affected by intergenerational trauma and a history she cannot fully know. Without knowledge of where and who she came from, Ruby takes a circuitous path around her own life. There is a depth of feeling to this journey that refuses convention. She meets her Native family, but she does not suddenly become whole. She must continue to exist in the margins, in a society where she is not valued and in a family where she does not fully belong. It's a refreshingly honest account of cobbling together a self out of disconnected parts, successfully but imperfectly.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

Kirkus
A bighearted portrait of an Indigenous woman whose transracial adoption spurs a lifelong quest to discover—or perhaps create—her identity...Probably Ruby is fully realized by the end. But readers may forgive clunky prose and spans of exposition for the chance to spend time with this complicated character with a big laugh and a guarded but vulnerable heart. An unsparing exploration of the injustices wrought by misogyny and settler colonialism.

Publishers Weekly
[M]oving if somewhat disjointed...Each chapter is vivid and contains a satisfying resolution, though the whole occasionally frustrates, as it seems designed for an overarching narrative but doesn't quite cohere. Still, the fragmented nature lends a sense of verisimilitude to this painful story of a fractured family history, and readers will be carried along by Ruby's vitality and perseverance. This is well worth a look.

Toronto Star (Canada)
[Bird-Wilson's] writing is never didactic, always engrossing, and the protagonist is a complex, unforgettable character who will stay with you long after the last page has been turned.

Author Blurb Christy Lefteri, bestselling author of Songbirds and The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Told from different viewpoints, this multifaceted narrative sparkles with life as we piece together Ruby's story, starting before she is even born. It is utterly heartbreaking that we see parts of Ruby's life that she herself cannot perceive, a compelling chord that stays with us throughout the novel. This is a beautiful, unusual, and insightful story about the lost pieces of one woman's life and Indigenous identity.

Author Blurb Imbolo Mbue, bestselling and award-winning author of How Beautiful We Were and Behold the Dreamers
"Writing from the depths of her heart, Lisa Bird-Wilson has gifted us a passionate exploration of identity and belonging and a celebration of our universal desire to love and be loved." -

Author Blurb Kelli Jo Ford, author of Crooked Hallelujah
Probably Ruby reminds us that our stories are acts of survival. That it's not 'so much the question of what [we've] inherited, but what [we] do with it.' That grief, too, can be a gift. Written in prose to be savored, Bird-Wilson's novel and its heroine will stay with me for a long time." -

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The Murder of Leo LaChance

In Lisa Bird-Wilson's novel Probably Ruby, a chapter set in Ruby's teenage years features references to the real-life 1991 murder of a 43-year-old Cree man, Leo LaChance, by a self-proclaimed white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan named Carney Milton Nerland. LaChance was killed in a Prince Albert, Saskatchewan pawn/gun shop on the evening of January 28th. He was attempting to sell some fur pelts, and after discovering that the shop of the fur trader he usually did business with was closed, he went next door to the pawn shop, which was owned by Nerland. It's not clear what exactly transpired in the pawn shop, but investigators believe Nerland fired a gun into the floor two times and then shot Leo LaChance as he was leaving. A witness saw LaChance stumble out of the store and called the police.

Then-constable Troy Cooper was one of the first officers on the scene, and he reported that LaChance said that he had been shot by "white guys" and that he thought the gun had gone off accidentally. LaChance was taken to a hospital in Saskatoon but succumbed to his injuries in the early hours of January 29th. His assertion that the shooting was an accident, along with corroborating statements from Nerland and his friends who were in the pawnshop at the time, led to Nerland being charged with manslaughter rather than murder. During the trial, Nerland's overt racism was discounted as a motive, despite his having reportedly told a police officer, "if I am convicted of killing that Indian, they should give me a medal and you should pin it on me." He was convicted and served a little less than three years in prison.

The short investigation into the crime and Nerland's light sentence were met with frustration by the Indigenous community in Saskatchewan. An inquiry was commissioned in the aftermath of Nerland's sentencing, which concluded that racism likely played a part in the crime. The inquiry recommended that a Cree-speaking officer be on duty at all times for the Prince Albert Police Service, and that all officers be given racial sensitivity training. Speaking 20 years later, Deputy Chief Cooper remarked to Prince Albert Now, "When this occurred there was that racial tension felt every day. But we don't have that now." He went on to explain that the percentage of police on the force that are of Native descent matches the percentage of the general population. However, it is unclear from the reported details if the general Native population would agree with the assessment that Prince Albert no longer has a racism problem.

Bird-Wilson's character Ruby is preoccupied by the death of Leo LaChance after running away from home. The narrator describes Ruby's white adoptive mother being "obsessed" with the murder, explaining, "She kept talking about it, as if it was supposed to be important to Ruby because she was Native." Ruby's own response is tempered by her personal experience: "This wasn't exactly news, in terms of racism in this town....she'd grown up seeing it, in different ways, every day." Ruby struggles with the trauma of experiencing Leo LaChance's murder as an act of racial hatred, the likes of which could be projected toward her at any given time. Her white mother understands this intuitively, but seems unable or unwilling to actually help her daughter reckon with this experience in any kind of direct and proactive way.

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Lisa Butts

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