© 2022 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'Saving Ruby King': Catherine Adel West's Paean To Chicago Is A Story Of Redemption

Ways To Subscribe

When Alice King is murdered in her home in the South Side of Chicago, her daughter, Ruby, despairs at the thought of being left to live with her father in a house that holds a silenced history of dysfunction and abuse. Her goal is to flee and start fresh in new place. But the path will not be an easy one.


Layla is Ruby’s friend and she’s committed to finding out what happened to Alice and to help Ruby start a new life in a new place away from the sadness she inherited from her mother.

As African American women, the two friends face other challenges, including living on the Southside of Chicago — and confronting the effects of gentrification, poverty, and racism. They also battle resistance from their families and their church community who’d rather they didn’t dig around for answers to their complicated questions.

We soon learn that Layla’s journey to excavate the secrets and silences becomes a perilous one for her and for Ruby. Even the church—the building itself—has some light to shed on the mysteries of Catherine Adel West’s “Saving Ruby King.”

Highlights from the interview with Catherine Adel West

On the alternating points of view and the unusual narration — from a church

I was able to kind of scratch this itch that I have for writing. In a really timeless, classical style you can't have people in the 21st century speaking like a timeless church. I really used a lot of my favorite older writers, like Dickens and Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare, and then mixed it with a lot of my favorite modern writers — so like Octavia Butler and James Baldwin. I was able to create like this voice of the church… For me the church really served as a way to kind of get these really big secrets and plot twists out. But at the same time, scratch this literary itch that I had to write in as much of a timeless classical style as I possibly could.

On the Black female friendships in this novel

There really is a very deep “ride or die” aspect of our friendships, you know, where we're very loyal and very passionate about our friends and we get involved in their business sometimes to our or their detriment. But it's just one of those things that becomes all encompassing. So like what happens to you happens to me, and what happens to me happens to you. I just really wanted to highlight the depth and the power and the fragility of Black female friendships.

On this novel’s depiction of generational trauma

The thing is how do you break that cycle? What is the one thing that's going to allow us that freedom to live our lives in a completely different way, as opposed to living kind of the same cyclical pattern of hurt and pain? That’s one big question that I try to answer, that I want to answer with Saving Ruby King.

I think the main passion or the main drive for me was to just show a family much like any other family that's dealing with issues like domestic violence, or the African American community dealing with police brutality and  how those things affect both the outside and the community and  the inside of families. I just wanted to make sure to tell a compelling story, but a very realistic story about how generational trauma really does affect generation to generation. I mean, that's why it's called “generational trauma,” but more so than that,  to just figure out what it means to break that chain and break that cycle and allow a certain freedom of living once all of the secrets [are]just like laid bare and laid out on a table.

On how the novel helps amplify Black voices and writers of color in the wake of the killing of George Floyd

I think the difference with George Floyd was the white acknowledgement that came with it.  I really hadn't seen that type of reaction from communities outside of the Black community. When Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin… and those unfortunate situations occurred, it was really just us in the street, but for whatever reason, [the killing of] George Floyd really sparked this kind of nation fight, almost a reckoning with race and racial relations, but it's something that, you know, Black people have always talked about.

My book isn't the only book that, you know, deals with this. I mean, we've been talking about this as far back as Frederick Douglass. I just think that the reckoning in terms of white privilege and what it means to be white in America versus what it means to be Black in America, that's, what's really coming to the fore. I do think that it's a conversation that still needs to be had.  I don't want any of this to really taper down and then things just kind of go back to the way they were until the next tragedy. I kind of feel that one of the ways we do that is by involving communities more with  what's going on top down, re-imagining police procedure and, how it is, they engage with us and engage with the community with the Black community and Brown community at large.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.