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'Probably Ruby' explores the legacy of forced Indigenous adoption and residential schools in Canada

Lisa Bird-Wilson. (George Gingras © Gabriel Dumont Institute)
Lisa Bird-Wilson. (George Gingras © Gabriel Dumont Institute)

In the new novel “Probably Ruby,” a young Canadian woman gets pregnant in the 1970s but is forced to give up the child for adoption, partly because she’s an unmarried teen, but also because the father is a young Indigenous man.

Baby Ruby is raised by a white family, who goes to great lengths to conceal her heritage with actions large and small — concealing information about her birth parents, making her wear large hats to prevent her skin from darkening.

The novel, written as a series of vignettes, spans 60 years and follows Ruby, her family and friends as she navigates her search for her family and a sense of belonging.

Host Celeste Headless talks to author Lisa Bird-Wilson about the book and her own life as a Metis Canadian and Canada’s centuries of anti-Indigenous policy.

Book excerpt: ‘Probably Ruby’

By Lisa Bird-Wilson

Kal

2013

“I like to be in charge,” said Ruby. “I pretend I like watching him jerk off, just so I won’t have to touch him. My commitment level’s kind of low on this one.”

Kal’s face showed no emotion. Instead he looked at the sun- glasses resting on top of Ruby’s head. Kal’s office was in the interior of a downtown building and had no windows. Out- side, it had been raining for days. He asked, “Is it sunny out there now, Ruby?”

His question made her laugh. She had a royal, attention- getting laugh, big enough to be heard out in Kal’s waiting room. Which was good. Ruby wanted anyone out there to know Kal and she were having a great time. Try and top that, sucker. That’s what she hoped her laugh said to any waiting client she’d subconsciously pegged as a rival for Kal’s affections. And by “anyone” she mostly meant the shiny, obvious “Lori,” seen on one occasion leaving his office and stopping to make an appointment on her way out; and, another time, waiting for Kal as Ruby left. In an effort to make him even more uniquely hers, she tried out a variety of nicknames on Kal. “Hey, Mister K,” she’d said when she arrived today, to which he just shook his head and smiled, motioning for her to come in. She was pleased to make him smile like that.

Ruby carried on with the chitchat about her new boyfriend. “I say the dirtiest things to him, Kal. To get it over with quicker.”

He nodded.

“Why are guys always so turned on by the idea of coming on your face?” she asked, pausing so he could think about that one. Ruby knew Kal was divorced and had recently started dating. He often told her personal things about himself as a way to relate to what she was going through. Because of this, he was her favorite kind of counselor. She listened carefully to his disclosures.

Sometimes she hit it off with a new counselor and some- times she didn’t. She usually gave it two appointments to decide, but honestly, a lot of them only deserved one chance, and even then she’d been known to cut the first hour short.

Take the counselor before Kal: Larry, with the huge wooden cross around his neck. So effing big, as if he was compensating for something. Or dragging it around doing penance. He had a serious Jesus complex, that one. She decided quickly: Jesus-counselor was not going to get the benefit of her attention—he said one thing about the “sanctity of the marriage bed” and she threw up a little bit in her mouth before she fled. After that she made sure to tell the assigning agent at the insurance company that she didn’t want “Christian” counseling, thank you very much.

In her experience, the people who stressed things the most or the loudest were the first ones to break their own rules. That’s why she always liked to hear one of her counselors say they would “never” date a client. When they said that she couldn’t help but think, Great. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Ruby always fell for her counselors. That was the point, really. I mean here was this person and they only had eyes and ears for you. How could you not be crazy about that? You got to be in a room alone with someone who listened hard and cared about what you were saying. Ruby was also counselor- monogamous, as far as that went. That was, if monogamy meant one at a time, one after another.

“You’re really aware of your anxiety,” Kal said during their first or second session. “You just don’t quite know how to manage it.” He was right. She hated to be alone. She some- times felt she’d had kids to save her from being alone. But she could still be lonely.

“I’m not all parent,” she told Kal once. “I’m a person, too. I’m often selfish and greedy.” In some ways, the boys were the only thing, and in other ways she needed so much more to save her from her sadness.

Today Kal and she were four sessions in and she was trying to decide if she would renew with him. That was, if her insurance would allow it. Six was the upper limit on the first assignment, and she got six because “her stepdad died.” Which was not really true but, as far as she could tell, insurance companies had no truth-auditing process. She didn’t have a stepdad. But if she did he might have died, because he ’d have been old, right? Ruby’s parents were old, because she was adopted. They were the same age as her real grandparents, and by “real” she meant “birth” grandparents. So if her mom had remarried someone who was even older than her—which he likely would be, because that’s how patriarchy works—well, then he would be so old that he might have died. In that case, it was entirely believable that Ruby could have had a stepdad who died. Really, Alice had broken up with all the losers she dated after the divorce, thank god, but still, Ruby was starting to feel a bit sad about the whole dead-stepdad thing, once she ’d thought it through like that.

Her options with Kal at this point were to try to renew her insurance so she could stay connected to him, or to be brave and make a move on him soon. She just didn’t know if he was ready. And then, just as she was weighing all the options, during appointment number four, Kal said this: “Do you want to book your next appointment at my home office? I find it quieter, and it might be a nice change of scenery for our discussion.”

Aha. Up to now, they’d always met at his downtown office, where there was a chaperone. Okay, secretary. At his home office Ruby imagined there would be no one but the two of them. In his house. This was looking promising.

Excerpted from PROBABLY RUBY by Lisa Bird-Wilson. Copyright © 2022 by Lisa Bird-Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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