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BOOKS: When Southern Gothic Is Real Life

5 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

Charleston, South Carolina, has always been a city of two tales — one white, the other black, running parallel, sometimes clashing but seldom touching. That is one reason why Ruthie Bolton’s Gal: A True Life (Harcourt Brace; 275 pages; $19.95) is such a remarkable book, for it is the result of an unlikely collaboration between two writers — one black and unpublished, the other white and well established. Gal is also remarkable as that one-in-a-million unsolicited manuscript that actually gets published. But most impressive is the book itself.

The author of Gal is a 33-year-old former employee at a plant nursery who is the wife of a restaurant worker and the mother of five children. She has adopted the pseudonym Ruthie Bolton to spare her family embarrassment over some of the raw events she writes about. Josephine Humphreys, 49, is a Charleston native and a highly regarded novelist. Her Dreams of Sleep, Rich in Love and The Fireman’s Fair have impressed readers and reviewers with their perceptiveness, their quiet humor and their blend of the courtly conservatism and racy spirits that have survived in and around that seductive old seaport for three centuries. Humphreys is married to a lawyer, has two sons at Harvard and lives in a green beachfront house on one of South Carolina’s fragile barrier islands.

Humphreys does much of her writing at an office in an attractively ruinous building in Charleston that once housed Confederate widows. That is where the porter asked her if she would talk to Bolton about her “book.” He had overheard Bolton discussing it at the nursery and said he knew someone who could help. At that point the effort consisted of 58 pages, handwritten on looseleaf paper and kept in a red folder marked “Parent Handbook” that Bolton’s seven-year-old daughter had brought home from school.

Last week, sitting on a neighbor’s screened porch with a view of Fort Sumter behind them, the two women recalled the beginning of their association and friendship. Advising unpublished writers is not Humphreys’ glass of ice tea. “I found that I’m usually a hurt more than a help,” she says. Yet she phoned Bolton and was immediately hooked by the voice she heard. “I loved its sound, bright and quick … a strong story-telling voice,” she says. Bolton had had only one other encounter with the literary world, when she contacted a vanity publisher whose ad she had seen. “They wanted $5,000,” she says. “So I jumped off that one.”

Inside the folder Humphreys found a sketchy narrative about a child abandoned by her 13-year-old mother and left to be raised by a grandmother who is beaten to death by her second husband. Daddy, as he is called, is not only a killer but a tyrant, an African-American Simon Legree, who turns Ruthie into a body servant. She shaves him, bathes him and cuts the calluses off his feet. When displeased — which is often — he beats her with the buckle end of a belt. The narrator was no angel either: she used drugs and traded sex for cash.

This was a tale better told than typed, Humphreys decided. Bolton bought a $27 mini-tape recorder at Wal-Mart, and for two months, twice a week, she went to the novelist’s office and acted out her autobiography. “It was like watching a movie,” says Humphreys. “She’d turn on the tape, and she was just gone.” The experience gave both women a strenuous emotional workout. When Bolton brought in a photograph of Daddy, now dead, Humphreys felt her stomach wrench. Facing floods of tears without Kleenex, she ripped up a bed sheet.

Sixteen hours of anger, sorrow and laughter filled eight microcassettes, each smaller than a bar of motel soap. Humphreys transcribed them, suggested a . few cuts and additions, and sent nearly 300 pages north to Manhattan, where her agent, Harriet Wasserman, read the manuscript in a few hours and sold it in a matter of days. “What language! What imagery!” says Wasserman, who certainly should know. She also represents Saul Bellow.

To compare Bolton and the Nobel prizewinner may seem farfetched, but the woman behind Gal uses language with a Bellovian zest. She even has something of Bellow’s broad moral overview. Gal is not about racism, feminism or victimization. The book enters the darkness of a “no-love family” without self-pity or bitterness and moves steadily toward the light. The sense of authentic experience eagerly seized is sharp on every page.

In person, Bolton is cheerful and full of surprises. One minute she may be talking about the barbecued pigs’ feet and rabbit cake she cooked for Humphreys (“She wouldn’t take a dime for her work”); the next, she is pulling a ringing cellular phone from her handbag and telling the caller she is in a meeting. Recently she told her current employer that she needed a few weeks off for personal business. The boss doesn’t know that she is a published writer and has to go off on a pseudonymous national publicity tour. “Can you believe it?” asks a laughing Humphreys. Why not? Ruthie Bolton has already done the unbelievable by beating overwhelming personal and publishing odds.

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