“Saving Ruby King” opens with the tragic death of Alice Synthia King, a woman whose devotion to her daughter, Ruby, was second only to her faith.
Alice was murdered in her home, a crime dismissed as one of those things that happens to people who live in a “bad neighborhood” on Chicago’s South Side. But the loss of her mother’s protection puts Ruby in serious danger from her abusive father, Lebanon, and Ruby’s best friend, Layla, is one of the few people who fully grasps the seriousness of the situation.
Layla is the daughter of Jackson Potter, the pastor of Calvary Hope Christian Church, an institution that looms large in the lives of everyone in the story, and the convergence point of the multiple timelines in the book.
The church serves as one of the narrators, revealing incidents from the past that have shaped generations of lives from its unique, omniscient point of view.
In 1960, three young women, Violet, Sara and Naomi, are best friends. Sara’s father is the pastor at Calvary Hope, a powerful, domineering man known to his congregation as King Saul. Saul has a dark side that he keeps well hidden, and his cruel abuse of Sara drives the women to orchestrate an escape that will bring Sara to safety. But Sara’s flight to Tennessee doesn’t erase the trauma that Sara experienced, and her son, Lebanon, is raised in a loveless and abusive home.
Years later, the abused child has become an abusive husband and father, unable to control his rage. Sara is dying of cancer, and Lebanon is struggling with forgiveness. At her bedside, Lebanon admits that “whatever haunts her, haunts me,” but Sara has kept her secret — just as Lebanon has kept his own secrets.
Alice’s death has forced those secrets to the surface, but what will be the reckoning?
Debut author Catherine Adel West, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois, draws thoughtful parallels between each generation of Kings and Potters. Both faith and friendship play powerful roles in the story, as redemptive forces as well as catalysts for change and transformation. Layla is to Ruby as Violet and Naomi were to Ruby’s grandmother, Sara — trusted confidantes who are able to turn thoughts into actions.
West is particularly adept at capturing the inner lives of her characters, honing in on the things that make them tick. Their struggles, their motivations and the depth of their feelings are captured in vivid detail.
Perhaps it’s the journalist’s mindset that allows West to document her characters’ lives so carefully and methodically, while keeping the story focused and propulsive.
There are also elements of suspense and plenty of unexpected twists and turns, as West unfurls her story in a methodical fashion. The mystery of Alice’s murder is at the forefront, but there are numerous other unknowns that are revealed throughout the book. What happened to Sara? Why does the Reverend Potter feel indebted to Lebanon? And will Ruby finally break the cycle of abuse and generational trauma?
“Saving Ruby King” is a promising debut, and readers who enjoyed “The Mothers” by Brit Bennett will be drawn to this powerful story.