Middle-Grade Books Round-Up, Part Three:
Mysteries (and a bit ‘o magic) that lie way down deep

h1 April 24th, 2007 by jules

Way Down Deep
by Ruth White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
March 2007
(library copy)

When Ruth White — one of children’s literature’s most celebrated authors (and, yes, let’s pause and do a little dance for teacher/librarian writers such as herself) — brings us a new novel, it’s cause for celebration in my book. Ruth White can transport you to another time and another place with great ease and can bring the reader such superb characterization — of that complex creation called a Southerner, no less — that you feel as if you’re in the presence of a master. And she never fails to provide a bit of wise, home-spun commentary on the Big Things of our emotional inner lives, both our strength of spirit and vulnerabilities as humans — and without ever laying it on too thick. As School Library Journal once put it well, White is a “real truth teller.” Not to mention, her books are infused with those mysterious, amorphous matters of the heart — love, friendship, familial devotion. Yessirree, when I’m in the mood for some good, old-fashioned Appalachian storytelling, some good Southern fiction, one of the writers I turn to is Ruth White.

On the whole, White doesn’t disappoint with her new title, Way Down Deep, which is — as pointed out by Lee Smith — part fable, part mystery. But, as KLIATT and Booklist also point out, we’re also dealing here with elements of folklore, fantasy, biography, and even magic realism (and, Publishers Weekly wrote, “{s}ome of White’s narrative teeters on the wobbly edge of farce”). The publisher itself will tell you it’s a bit of “fairy-tale magic.” There’s a little bit of everything here, but White pulls it all together with the cohesive thread that is, at its core, a tender narrative about the relationship between a caretaker and her child — and what it truly means to be a family.

Ruby June is a beloved member of the town of Way Down Deep in the hills of West Virginia, though no one is quite sure from where she came: She just appeared on the front steps of the courthouse as a wee, wee child on the first day of summer in 1944, telling everyone that she rode a “hossie” into town. Not knowing anyone “hereabouts who rode a horse,” the puzzled town allows one Miss Arbutus — the proprietor of The Roost, the town’s boardinghouse, who possesses a bit of the spinster -– to claim Ruby. And thus commences her happy, untroubled childhood in this small, tight-knit community (“Way Down was a town that did not do things by the book. For example, they didn’t know the meaning of social services. And that’s why Ruby never became a ward of the county or the state, or any person, for that matter . . . Besides, the good citizens of Way Down reckoned if Ruby’s people were dumb enough to lose something as valuable as a child, then finders keepers, losers weepers”).

Ruby June does wonder a bit about her past but, for the most part, is content and secure with her life in Way Down Deep, milling about with the eccentric cast of characters (and I mean literally — White opens the novel with a script-like “Cast of Characters”) who populate this mountain town: elderly Mrs. Rife, who pelts children who walk by her home with small rocks; the local librarian, whom Ruby and her friends call “Mrs. Wordy”; Mr. Crawford, a resident of The Roost who is supposed to be writing a book about the town that never seems to actually get written (in one of the book’s most poignant moments, he asks Ruby, “’Everybody is haunted by somebody
. . . Who haunts you, Ruby June?’”); and many more. But when the bumbling, kind-hearted failed-attempt-at-a-criminal Robber Bob eventually moves to Way Down Deep with his elderly father, Bird, and his five children, Ruby begins to piece together the strange and evasive puzzle pieces of her past (all beginning with a cryptic comment the senile Bird keeps repeating every time he sees Ruby — “Panthers got ‘er . . . Panthers ate her all up!” — about a small girl who mysteriously disappeared from a neighboring town, Yonder Mountain). She decides, after initially battling some reluctance, to finally find out who her family is and who exactly brought her to Way Down.

There’s a lot of White’s trademark Southern humor at play here. When Ruby befriends Peter Reeder, one of Robber Bob’s children, he tells her that his siblings are Cedar, Jeeter, Skeeter and baby Rita. “‘My mama loved to make things rhyme,’ {Peter} explained. ‘She was a poet in her last life.'” And, when explaining Rita’s name, he tells Ruby, “‘Mama had run out of rhyming names, so she had to settle for a tongue twister'” . . . There’s White’s vivid recreation of a particular time and a particular Southern place; White can really nail a setting with sentences like this: “It was a common belief among Way Down folks that anybody who would steal must be in great need, so they should help themselves. Rarely did anything go missing.” And moments like this, in the words of Miss Arbutus:

My mother used to tell me that at certain times if you listen, you can hear the hills singing . . . These hills hold the memories of people who have lived here for more than a thousand seasons, and they sing of lost love, broken hearts, death, but also of rebirth, renewal, second changes . . .

Then there are the themes at which White excels: in this case, the questions that come up as a result of the affectionate relationship between Miss Arbutus and Ruby — what truly constitutes a family? To whom does Ruby owe her allegiance? Just exactly how Ruby goes about learning that your “true mother is the one who loves you and cares for you” — combined with the mystery narrative in the book (who really is Ruby June?) — is what makes the book a page-turner. And, finally, there are simply beautifully-written scenes, such as this one, in which Ruby is talking to Peter:

“Miss Arbutus says that sleep is more important for the soul than for the body. She says when a person sleeps a lot like Mr. Crawford does, they are trying to work out their problems.”

“And how does sleeping help?”

“Because, according to Miss Arbutus,” Ruby said, “God is in that place where sleep takes us. Way down deep inside, where all the answers lie.”

The ending is a happy one, but a portion of it didn’t ring true for me. I was pleased to see everything work out for just about every character involved, but one of the secondary characters has a sudden epiphany that seemed altogether forced in the name of a tidy ending. And, as Booklist wrote, “the explanation of how Ruby came to town will vex some and delight others,” this being the aforesaid moment of magic realism in the novel. But, all in all, White scores again with a heartfelt story wrapped around some profound questions of redemption and unconditional love.

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