With "Gal: A True Life," Ruthie Bolton has redefined pain. Her story, moving and ultimately inspirational, creates a wound scraped raw with each turn of the page.
The force of this autobiography comes out of nowhere. From its content to its style, nothing about "Gal" is usual. Written in the earnest words of a young woman called to share her memories, Ms. Bolton's story is a transport to 1960s Charleston, S.C., to a house in Hungry Neck, where a good day was one that went to dusk without someone being beaten at the home and hand of Clovis Fleetwood.
Clovis was an ugly, unredeemed man. He beat his children without reason or mercy. He beat Ruthie -- Gal, he calls her -- with particular zeal, perhaps because she was his step-granddaughter, no blood relation.
The tenuous tie wore thinner the day Clovis beat to death Gal's grandmother -- his wife. From that moment, not love, warmth nor family touched the Fleetwood home during Gal's childhood. Even if they had come to call, Gal wouldn't have had time for them, as she and her aunts were little more than slaves in the service of Clovis: making coffee, scrubbing toilets, scratching dandruff, clipping toenails, changing channels, tending the backyard marijuana -- chores that for years filled the time between lashings.
With conditions as they were, it would seem small to say Gal was worse off than Naomi, Kitty and Florence, aunts who were only a few years older than herself, since Gal had been born to their 13-year-old sister. (Clovis beat Gal's mother away before Gal started school.) Yet, for them there was strength -- if not in numbers, then in the knowledge that they were sisters.
Strange respite came outside the home. Gal found it in stealing, fighting, drinking and smoking dope. Somehow she found the fortitude to stick by her education. This in itself is most amazing, as some of her greatest trauma was inflicted when Clovis sat down with her for one-on-one tutoring in reading, perhaps his first expression of paternal love:
He said, 'Gal, I want you to go in there. I'm going to be in there in a minute because I want you to read to me.'
. . . Tag and Spot, that was the name of the book. . . . I got down on my knees at that brown table, same table he beat me on. And the book cover was green. He came and he sat on the blue couch. And he said, 'Read.'
And I remember saying 'The . . . ball . . .' and the next thing I know -- Bam! -- he boxed my fingers.
He said, 'It's not "thuh," it's "thee."
As I'm reading again, that word came up again.
'Thuh . . .'
Bam! 'I said, not "thuh." "Thee." '
Thus, Gal's lifelong stutter was born. (That was the first, and not the last, time this reader turned to the book jacket to reaffirm that "Gal" is an autobiography, not the biography of a now-dead person.) However, Gal does live and blossom as the fates turn kinder with her marriage to Ray Bolton.
As an adult, Ruthie Bolton marvels like a child at the affection showered upon her and her children by her in-laws. "All of these kids hug and kiss each other. And it kind of gets to me sometimes, because these kids are so little, and it's happening for them. . . . I was jealous."
No more, though, she says. Though still distrusting of such concepts as unconditional love and family, she knows the Boltons love her because they call her on the phone and always say, "I love you." "Who's going to call you long distance to tell you a lie? So it must be true."
"Gal" is difficult reading, and not because the words aren't simple. The narrative is written by the hand of novelist Josephine Humphreys in Ms. Bolton's voice, collected from twice-a-week sessions in which she spoke, laughed and cried her detailed recollections into a tape recorder. ("Ruthie Bolton" is a pseudonym, and she changed most other names to protect her loved ones.) It's a monument to one woman's strength, but the unabashed pain is not to be mistaken for mere poignancy. This story is to be read for the experience, not for entertainment. While Ms. Bolton finds a peace within herself and even with Clovis' memory, the catharsis is hers only. Her healing does not translate from the pages as vividly as the pain.
From the tattered sepia photograph on the cover of "Gal" peers a neat, beribboned girl in patent leather shoes wearing neither smile nor frown. There's no bitterness there, as there is none in Ms. Bolton's narrative. ". . . I believe there's a lot of people who have had a life worse than me," she says.
C7 Perhaps, but few who have related it so powerfully.
LTC Title: "Gal: A True Life"
Author: Ruthie Bolton
Publisher: Harcourt Brace
0$ Length, price: 275 pages, $19.95