Ruby’s Big Laugh

In her novel Probably Ruby, Lisa Bird-Wilson (Doubleday Canada, 2021), takes us through the twists of fate and conscious, if sometimes questionable, choices in the life of Ruby, an Indigenous woman adopted at birth by a white couple. Big- hearted Ruby searches for identity and a sense of belonging and, along with the reader, comes to recognize that those two things don’t always equate.

Chapters fraught with the heartache of lost children and substance abuse exist right alongside glimpses into joy and friendship and the complicated love of family. What is wonderful about this story is that we see Ruby as whole, as containing all the elements of a life despite, and sometimes because of, her search to determine who she is in a world that wants to prescribe that for her.

What Bird-Wilson does not ask us to do is to feel sorry for her protagonist. Ruby is loud and raw and lovely, and her big booming laugh rings through the pages. She is self-aware even as she becomes mired in the consequences of bad choices. And Ruby is brutally honest.

“Something Ruby didn’t tell anyone: she could spot an Indigenous adoptee a mile away. Pick them out of the crowd like it was a serious parlour game. Sixth sense. And it wasn’t just a visilibility thing…. likely, she thought, because of that window, a blank spot like a slipped stitch in a knitted scarf — once it was missed there was no going back to fix it. It just existed.”

Ruby tries really hard. She is always moving forward, learning American Sign Language, “back when she wanted nothing more than to learn a secret language. If she had a superpower it would be invisility. Pretending to be deaf was the next best thing.”

Ruby’s stories are interspersed with those of others, women who gave up babies because there was no other choice, men who survived abuse by priests at residential schools. There is a fluidity to the book, the stories weaving into each other and connecting us to Ruby, her big laugh reminding us that she doesn’t want our pity. She only needs us to see her as joyful and flawed, perfect and terrible, to witness her life as a whole, and to love all of her.

The Beauty of Sylvie

As she danced, the image of a river came to her. A river branching into multiples of itself, no longer a single stream but a delta. And if her life were such a delta she might let the flow take her in a direction far from the current she was in now.”

So begins our adventures with Sylvie, the wildly engaging, funny and flawed protagonist of the award- winning If Sylive Had Nine Lives, a novel by Saskatoon’s Leona Theis, published by Freehand Books.

Playing with structure, plot and voice, Theis takes us on a raft ride down the what-if streams of a life. At times hilarious, in others poignant, each chapter of this novel is a reflection on the choices a person could have made, should have made, forgot to make or fell into. From an almost-cancelled marriage to falling for an old flame; a sister she mocks to an aunt who picks her up at each failed turn, these stories haunt with the notion that one moment, one decision can affect a lifetime.

Sylvie is fervently human as are the characters surrounding her and the world they act upon and which impacts upon them. A master of language, Theis renders these stories in prose that makes you catch your breath, makes you want to read that sentence or paragraph one more time, the beauty of word choice and image filling the reader with longing, joy or laughter.

I should have written this review long ago, but better late than never. Read Sylvie!