The novel begins in 2013 at a therapy session as an adult Ruby tries to make sense of her inappropriate feelings for her therapist, Kal. But before we get to really get to know her, we flash back to 1981 when 6-year-old Ruby plays outside, negotiating the risk of telling the truth after her adoptive mother asks if she peed in the yard.
Adoptees of color with white parents struggle to talk to their families about race
Born at a time when unmarried, pregnant teenagers were being pushed out and forced to give up their illegitimate babies, Ruby was adopted by Alice and Mel, both white, who would give her a forever family. However, adoptive families are not immune to dysfunction, and her parents’ marriage doesn’t last, so she doesn’t fulfill the promise of a better life.
Each chapter focuses on one person who affects Ruby’s life at different times, from before she was born to her adulthood as she attempts to reclaim and preserve her Métis heritage for her children. By filling her house with photos of unknown native elders and children, she creates stories of the family life she wanted and now she wants her children to have. “She saw the ‘family photos’ as a terrible but necessary lie,” writes Bird-Wilson. “It was Ruby’s attempt to dream of her getting back together.”
What a Black Adoptee Wishes Her White Parents Had Told Her
The complexity and instability of her relationships with family, friends, and lovers present a continual questioning of Ruby’s identity and sense of belonging. There are the relationships with both her adoptive family and her original Métis family, each with their own complexities and disappointments. There are the loves that she chooses and those that she does not, some masculine, feminine, public and secret, but all of them leave Ruby with a fear of abandonment and a reluctance to trust anyone. Among her long-term relationships is one of hers with alcohol, but she also disappoints her, as she could never make up for what she lost due to her being adopted.
Bird-Wilson adds historical context through Johnny’s story in 1950, long before Ruby is born, while attending one of the religious schools for indigenous children forcibly separated from their families. Perhaps not so different from Canadian residential schools where the remains of thousands of indigenous children were recently discovered in unmarked graves. The abuses in such institutions are well documented and resonate here as Johnny watches the priests lurking among the other children. The implication is that Ruby could also have been destined for such a place if she had been born under different circumstances.
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While the birth parents of adopted children are often little more than names on a birth certificate or family registry, “Probably Ruby” provides the perspectives and struggles of Ruby’s birth parents, Grace and Leon. Their failures and small triumphs in a system that shames illegitimacy remind us that the original parents lead full lives, scarred by the trauma of adoption. Grace, pregnant and single, is not only fired by her family, but also shamed by the staff at Bethany Home. Still, she finds solidarity with the other pregnant girls and plans to escape from the home that feels more like a prison.
The traits and choices of both parents represent an eternal but frayed thread in Ruby’s life as she embarks on a search for her original family. Her desire for answers to nagging questions of hers will only generate more questions in his search for anchors of her identity.
Ruby is the most believable and authentic protagonist, which is not surprising since Bird-Wilson is a transracially adopted person and is of Cree-Métis descent. The author focuses on Ruby’s experience and journey of adoptive identity, with her adopters and her birth parents as supporting actors and contributors to the loss and shame of her Métis heritage.
As Bird-Wilson mentioned at a literary festival in April, she wanted to write indigenous joy and for Ruby to be everything the author needed to hear, ask and explore about an adopted indigenous character. Tellingly, Bird-Wilson uses Cree without italics, forcing the reader to put her own ignorance into perspective. The context gently makes it clear that kohkum means grandmother and moshom is grandfather, and that retrieving the original language is critical to understanding one’s ancestry.
In an age where the truth is coveted, “Probably Ruby” is a refreshing reminder of the realities of forced Indian adoption and family separation. Bird-Wilson’s writing is sometimes poetic and always compelling. We are lucky to have her and Ruby with us.
Julayne Lee is the author of “not my white savior.”
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