Ruby & Roland

Ruby & Roland

by Faith Sullivan

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Overview

From the author of Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse and The Cape Ann comes a new tale of resilient womanhood in Harvester, Minnesota.


Growing up in early twentieth-century Illinois, Ruby Drake is a happy child. But one winter’s night, her beloved parents perish in an accident—and suddenly Ruby finds herself penniless and nearly alone in the world. Her new path eventually takes her to Harvester, where she is lucky enough to find work on the welcoming Schoonover farm. Kind Emma, forward-thinking Henry, and their hired men—ambitious Dennis and reserved Jake—soon become a second family to the orphaned teenager.


At a historical moment when young women are expected to be focused on courtship and marriage, the industrious, bright Ruby searches for opportunities to expand her horizons at every step. Mastering her responsibilities on the farm. Learning to smoke cigarettes. Borrowing books from the local lending library, reading devotedly and expansively: mythology, romance, poetry. And falling in love with her married neighbor, Roland: “the most beautiful man—maybe in the world.” But when Ruby is asked to care for Roland’s wife in the wake of tragedy, she is torn between duty and passion, between what has been her lot and what could be.


Jane Eyre set in Faith Sullivan’s “reliably inviting world” ( Wall Street Journal ), Ruby & Roland is a story of relationships—friendship, romance, and the families we are born with and create—and of one woman’s journey of selfhood on the prairie.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571311320
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication date: 09/10/2019
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 85,192
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Faith Sullivan is the author of many novels, including Gardenias , The Cape Ann , What a Woman Must Do , and, most recently, Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse. A “demon gardener, flea marketer, and feeder of birds,” she is also an indefatigable champion of literary culture and her fellow writers, and has visited with hundreds of book clubs. Born and raised in southern Minnesota, she spent twenty-some years in New York and Los Angeles, but now lives in Minneapolis with her husband.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Three


Around five o’clock, the train pulled into a station so like the one in Salisbury, I would have thought we’d traveled in a circle had “Harvester” not been printed on the side of the gray building.


On the platform, a lone woman stood waiting. The brim of her straw hat fluttered in the prairie wind. Drawing the sleeve of her dress across her brow, she wiped away perspiration. Advancing, she greeted me. She was Emma Schoonover, she said, and I was to call her Emma. She had not expected a pretty girl, she went on. Was I pretty?


From the tone of Emma Schoonover’s words, pretty was something she had not bargained for nor desired. She quickly bethought herself, however, and cast me a flickering smile. She was brusque without being cold. I believe “harried” is the word I want. September was after all an extremely busy time on a farm. This I knew from living in two farm towns before coming here.


As we waited for my small trunk to be lowered from the train and carried by the depot clerk to the woman’s buggy, I glanced sidelong, trying not to gawk. Emma was perhaps forty and comely without being beautiful, or so I thought at the time. Possibly farm life had robbed her of earlier beauty.


“Up since four a.m.” she explained, as if I’d inquired. “Big breakfast for the threshers.” Eggs, steak, homemade bread and gravy, pies, egg coffee.


Her spine as straight as a ruler, Emma held the reins loosely but with authority. As we rode out of town, I admired the endless prairie sky, blue as a delphinium.


Emma Schoonover spoke little on the remainder of the drive to the Schoonover farm west of Harvester. She did tell me that Mr. Schoonover was “Henry,” and asked if I knew how to milk a cow, which I did not.


“I can gather eggs, though.”


Driving along, raising a feather boa of dust behind us, we passed first the Protestant and then the Catholic cemeteries on our right, both beautifully planted with trees and flowering bushes. And so many bodies planted as well! Headstones were thick on the ground.


The earliest days on the farming frontier had been perilous, and they were not long past. Men and women died of exposure, disease, suicide, farm accidents, and half a dozen other causes. The blizzard of ’88, I would learn, took hundreds. The loneliness of the wide, mostly empty prairie found a way to claim folks.


Beyond the cemeteries, the buggy turned in at a tree-lined and graveled drive leading to an impressive white clapboard house with a broad front porch, nicely turned columns supporting its slanting roof. The yard lying immediately before was a haphazardly mowed swath of grass sloping down to the road we’d traveled, Cemetery Road.


A big dog of unknown breed and mottled coat—tan, brown, white—came flying down the drive with a great hoo-ha of greeting, barking us all the way to the back gate. “Big lummox,” Emma said with fondness as she drew the buggy up. “Name’s Teddy, after Roosevelt.”


The front door, I’d discover, was rarely used. Even guests and commercial travelers came to the back. The graved farmyard around us was girded by a cow barn; a horse barn; a pig sty; and a machine shed, all of them painted a rich red. Beyond the machine shed stood corn cribs and silos. A small village of structures. Canny and prosperous, these people were hardworking, too.


Parked around the yard were several wagons, their horses let out to pasture till their owners claimed them at the end of the day. “Threshing hands,” Emma said. Nearby farmers and their hands came to help with the overwhelming task of threshing the grain; when the crew finished here, they and Henry and his hired men would move on to the next farm in the rotation. If dry weather continued, the grain on all the farms would soon be ready for storage and sale.


“Dennis will carry your trunk in later,” Emma told me. “One of our hired men,” she explained.


Off to the right of the screened back porch was a big chicken coop. And, to the right of that, a garden, fenced with chicken wire. As Emma and I stepped down, softly clucking chickens greeted us, preoccupied with pecking for seeds and grain in the grass and dirt. They were like old women intent upon their knitting but murmuring to one another. Outside the screeching gate, but not ten yards distant from the back door, stood a watering trough and a windmill clacking with the incessant prairie wind.


Lost in dreams, perhaps, our somnolent buggy horses stood idly nickering as I followed my employer through the gate, across a short brick walk, up three steps, and into the screened porch, which smelled of sour milk. Another thing I was to learn: on a farm, even the most scrupulously clean back porch smells of sour milk. I don’t know why, but you get used to it. At the other end of the porch was a screen door leading to the four-hole outhouse. One hole for Emma, one for Henry, and two for the help, which included me of course. In those days, the outhouse was something you grew up with, its reek one more thing you got used to, along with iridescent-green-winged flies buzzing continually in warm weather.


Raising an arm and pointing, Emma said, “Over there, past the garden, is the storm cellar.” It seemed a long way to dash in the event of a tornado. She went on, “We keep last year’s apples and carrots and potatoes in there. Also some butter, milk, and ice from the lake.”


Inside the house, Emma carried my hat, carpetbag, and gloves to the parlor. When she left to unhitch the horses, I took the opportunity to look around the big kitchen, which was clean and tidy. In two corners, spiral ribbons of flypaper hung from the ceiling, lightly speckled with corpses. These ribbons were not so heavy laden as the ones I’d seen in the Salisbury depot. Emma probably renewed them often during warm months.


Returning to the house, Emma seized a vast apron from hooks behind the kitchen door, thrusting it at me and grabbing another for herself. “Set the table,” she said, “while I get the chicken frying.” She nodded toward a tall cupboard where dishes were stacked. “There’ll be eight places. You and I’ll eat after.” From shelves beside the woodstove, she pulled a huge and weighty iron spider with both hands, heaving it onto the stove.


Because the Schoonover farm didn’t claim a summer kitchen (most in these parts didn’t) this one was “hotter than a desperado’s pistol,” as Mrs. Bullfinch back in Beardsley would have said. Seeing me wipe my brow on my sleeve, Emma told me, “They want hot meat, even in this weather.” Shaking her head, she poured liquid lard into the spider. “They won’t be in from the field for at least another hour, but we have to be ready. Soon as they wash up out back, they want food.”


I began setting plates and utensils on the long pine table, nervous about what was to come. What kind of men were these? Crude? Loud? Disrespectful? Emma’s remark that she hadn’t been expecting a pretty girl made me wonder.


***


The men were dusty with wheat chaff. Though they’d washed their faces and hands and made a pass at brushing off the worst, the dust was in their ears, their hair, and the creases of their clothing, and they were too hungry to care. Hunger subdued their voices until they’d filled their bellies, and it robbed them of interest in a new hired girl.


As they trooped from the kitchen after the final cup of coffee, laughing and chiding one another, they did cast sidelong glances at me as I carried away the remains of their meal. Several nodded. The next evening, when I’d been accepted as truly the new hired girl, they would introduce themselves.


Following supper, the men returned to the field where they worked until no light remained. Then the visitors hitched up their horses and headed back to their homeplaces while the Schoonover hired men, Dennis and Jake, sat on the back steps smoking in the dark. Meanwhile, Emma and I had washed up, swept the kitchen and tidied. Now we dished out supper for ourselves, and sat down at the table. Eventually, Henry would join us, sipping a tot of liquor and reading something “picked up at Kolchak’s livery.”


With the clatter of dinner ended, silence settled over the farm: only the singing of crickets beyond the open window, the occasional squawk from an awakened hen, and the soughing of cottonwoods in the grove gave evidence that the world hadn’t wandered off, leaving the three of us in a pale ochre circle of lamplight.


Buttering an ear of corn, Emma told her husband, “This is the new girl, Henry. Her name’s Ruby.”


He lowered his handbill, glanced at me and nodded. “How-do.” Another time, he would have conversation, a time when he wasn’t weighted to the chair with exhaustion.


“Well, what did you think?” Emma asked me, pouring herself a glass of buttermilk.


I knew what she meant. “They seemed nice enough,” I remarked of the men who’d sat at the table. “They weren’t fresh.”


We exchanged few words after that, both of us worn out.


***


Later, carrying a kerosene lamp, Emma showed me to my small room under the eaves on the third floor, the climb speaking to her endurance after a hard day. My room was separated from another bedroom by a long storage closet. Nodding at the door down the hallway, she said, “Men sleep there. If they bother, you let me know.” Setting her lamp on a bureau, she opened the dormer window overlooking the front yard and Cemetery Road. “I expect they won’t. They’re pretty good men. But you never know, do you, what men’ll get up to?” She lit the lamp on the bedside table. “Better get to sleep real quick. Morning comes early.”


Someone had filled a pitcher beside the basin on the bureau, so I undressed and sponged off before pulling on the batiste gown Frau Oster had given me. Before anything else, though, I knelt and opened the trunk, which stood beneath a row of hooks high on the wall. With delicacy, I lifted out the china tea set, a piece at a time. Near the window facing the road sat a wooden box, maybe meant as a seat, but I laid out the tea set on it, just so , as I always did. Now the room held some exhalation of Serena.


The painting I hung by its wire from one of the hooks. Though the cowherd lay with his arms folded behind his head, seeming to study the moving water of the stream, sometimes I felt that from the corner of his eye he studied me as well.


I hung my dress and undergarments on the hooks, as there was no wardrobe, then slipped a book from my carpetbag. Before settling down to read, I crouched by the window, listening to the night, the frogs and crickets, the trees and windmill. The clacking of the windmill was nearly incessant. It would grow so familiar that I would stop hearing it.


I lay down with Wuthering Heights , part of my legacy from Serena’s library. The rest of the books were still in the trunk. Later, I would pile a few on the lower shelf of the bedside table as I had done at the Osters’. The Osters. They’d soon be gone from Salisbury and from my life, nearly as vanished as Serena and Denton.


But now I opened the book to the page where I’d left the story. Nursed by the Lintons after their dog had attacked her, Cathy was home again. Heathcliff, mistreated and banished by Earnshaw at Christmas, was angrier than he’d ever been, and swearing vengeance. Nothing Cathy said could soothe him. They were both orphans and had always clung to each other, but Cathy was of the family, whereas Heathcliff was a mongrel, a child of unknown origin, despised by the Earnshaws.


Some in this world might label me a mongrel, but I had known my parents, dear Denton and Serena, and the book in my hands was proof of it.


***


For the remainder of that week, every minute was crammed with chores, and it remains a whirling blur. Besides gathering eggs, weeding in the garden, and helping Emma with the three main meals, I carried sandwiches, cool water, and slices of melon down to the threshing field mid-morning and mid-afternoon.


During the all-too-brief window for threshing, the men worked at least fourteen-hour days, six days a week, and sometimes Sunday after church as well if the weather promised fair. One never knew when rain might gather in black, pendulous clouds above South Dakota and come sweeping over the lip of the prairie. Nowhere else and never since have I seen men or women work as they did during those late summer days.


“Next week, when the extra help is gone, I’ll teach you to milk a cow,” Emma told me as the threshing began to wind down.


Out of the blur, people’s names began attaching themselves to faces. The hired man from the farm directly across Cemetery Road was Moses Good, the farmer Roland Allen, his wife Dora. Though the wives of other farmers came with potato salads and pies during the threshing, we did not see Dora who had a month-old baby girl at home. Roland was notable among the men for his beauty. Emma said that six years ago, when he was seventeen and had taken over the farm from a homesteading uncle, Roland had been the object of sport among the men on account of his looks.


“They called him Adonis Allen.” She paused from dredging steaks in seasoned flour. “Men don’t quite trust a fellow who’s that good looking. They’re always waiting for some shoe to drop.” A moment later it seemed to occur to her that a sheltered fifteen-year-old might not understand, and she turned to look at me.


“I think I know what you mean,” I said. “I read a lot.” I laid a glass at each place on the table. “And Serena told me about Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.”


She did not indicate whether she knew of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, but inquired, “Serena?”


“My mother.”


“You called her by her first name?” Her tone was wondering.


At suppertime, I studied Roland Allen as much as I could without appearing to. Beneath the chaff dust, there was no question that he was beautiful, the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. The summer sun had bleached his blond hair nearly white, and his brows were white against skin tanned golden, dark lashes framed eyes the intense blue of bachelor’s buttons. Ringing each iris was a thin black line which only heightened their intensity.


I would not ordinarily stare at a man, and I soon grew self-conscious and embarrassed to be doing just that. At last I drew myself away to fetch the pitcher of buttermilk from the icebox. There is something about extreme beauty that is like a terrible accident—from which, people say, they cannot look away.


***


Lying in bed, the lamp still burning, I gazed at the picture of Serena and Denton. Well, darlings, here I am. On a farm now. The Schoonovers are good people. Hardworking. Oh my, yes, hardworking. But the work does them proud. They thrive on it, though it wears them down to their essentials. Remember, Serena, you used to say that about teaching. “It’s wearing me down to my essentials, but I love it.”


Ah, Serena. Where are you now, you and Denton? Lying back on wicker chaises on a wide green lawn beneath spreading trees? Or perhaps you’ve drifted on a cloud across the world to far Xanadu, where Kubla Khan “a stately pleasure dome” did build? More than two years have passed since you left, but some of your time is spent with me here in this small third-floor room. I know.

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