Aqueous Books, 2015
Perfect bound, 331 pp., $16.99
Review by Mary Lannon
In his essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin famously castigated James Wright and Harriet Beecher Stowe for making characters who are “categorizations” or types rather than fully human:
The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.
The same critique cannot be leveled at Allison Ruth’s character Kaylee or her novel Near-Mint Cinderella, which can, nonetheless, be read as a protest novel. Ruth’s target is not race but class and the class divide, a timely topic to say the least. The book tells the particular story of its well-developed main character adroitly, and it turns its gaze to the wider world, offering a devastating critique of poverty and class in America.
At first the novel appears to fail Wright’s test because characters seem to be two-dimensional, mostly good or mostly bad. However, Ruth is telling the coming-of-age story of Kaylee—told mostly in a close third-person narration. As in many coming-of-age novels, the main character moves from seeing the world in black and white to understanding its complexities. This journey is made particularly difficult for Ruth’s Kaylee, a character so clearly abused by most of the adults around her. Her mother treats her like a maid and nanny; the truant officer takes a hammer to her hands; her mother’s boyfriend sees her only as another person to exploit in his quest for money; her boyfriend refuses to acknowledge her in public and dumps her for a popular girl. The extent to which Kaylee is expected to take care of others rather than herself is nicely captured by the fact that for days she is unable to even take a shower while slaving away for others, a metaphor for the brutality of Kaylee’s life. Yet by the end, the main character sees many of the “evil” people as complex human beings. To give one example, she finally recognizes a connection between her mother, who is her main adversary, and herself: “She let her imagination unwind until she played with their baby on the polished wood floor of his new house. Is this what her mother had imagined 16 years ago?”
Despite Baldwin’s criticisms, protest novels remain in the canon for a reason. They take a stand against clear injustice and reflect their times. Ruth’s book belongs in this good company. One of her main targets is her mother’s boyfriend. Ruth casts him as a man who has made his wealth acting as a repo man. This choice is an apt metaphor for those who take what really belongs to others. Ruth also has him exploit illegal immigrant workers to clean his repossessed properties. Thus, he not only takes from but also exploits the weak for his own gain. Ruth is good at capturing how dehumanizing such a person can be: “He inventoried the girl in front of him, looking her over as if she was an unholy part of something gorgeous he wanted to buy.” And “Starret looked at the crowd as if they were ants that suddenly turned human.”
Ruth is also alert to less obvious malfeasance. Through the character of the doctor, she also shows how indifference can cause as much harm as maliciousness: “The rich doctor would build a dream house after knocking down the trees so he could see the far hills from every room. He did not seem greedy, just entitled.” Further, she adds to the damning portrait by showing how the pettiest self-interest blinds: “They’re tearing everything down that ain’t luxurious enough and they don’t care where we got to live or how.” Condescension also gets its due critique: “He had his hand on her shoulder to guide her as if she were blind as well as poor.”
Insightful protests against the conditions of poverty would be enough to make this novel worth reading, but Ruth also provides strong character development. First, Kaylee is not merely a victim. We see this in her self-questioning, when she takes responsibility for her own exploitative tendencies: Why should she deserve to marry Jesse more? She too desired his future earnings in a secure marriage.” And in another passage Kaylee tires of her own sense of victimhood: “But she grew bored of blame, and instead heard the leaves shiver overhead, anticipating the cool of the early evening when they could breathe in this forest hothouse.” The rich inner life and psychological complexity of the character also helps avoid stereotyping. Kaylee survives her grim life through her imaginative play with dolls. Many times Kaylee’s true feelings come out through the way she imagines the lives of her dolls. Most remarkably, Ruth helps the reader understand and empathize with Kaylee’s desire to be a single mom on food stamps, given her current reality as a “Cinderella” to her own mother, who, though not a stepmother, plays the part of the evil stepmother to a tee.
In addition to providing character development, the central metaphor of the dolls is used in what Douglas Glover has called “image patterning,” meaning (as a rough paraphrase) that an image is not only a controlling metaphor, but shows up in the very fabric of the novel’s language. So beyond the imaginary life Kaylee creates for the dolls, Kaylee uses the words “plastic,” ”unseeing,” and “unfeeling” in ways that reverberate back to the central metaphor of the doll. If I have any complaint about the book, it’s that this technique could have been used more and to greater effect.
Ruth’s book also demonstrates a mastery of other techniques of novel-writing. She creates setting well, writing both economically and descriptively: “Walking along the mile-long road her sneakers slipped in and out of potholes as swallows went shooting overhead, and for the first time that morning there was peace.”
She also makes good use of minor characters that could have been a distraction in the hands of a less-skilled novelist. Kaylee’s siblings are never named, nor is it clear how many there actually are. Yet, these omissions work—they accurately depict Kaylee’s alienation from her siblings because of the heavy burden of caregiving. Also effective is calling the most prominent sibling of Kaylee’s “One blonde sister.” The interactions between the two show how each sees the other only in terms of her own burdens, another dehumanizing consequence of poverty.
Ruth also does dialogue well, nicely capturing the rhythms of speech:
“When you due to get better?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have your sister help you get dressed.” The kettle began to whistle. “Go to school and see the nurse there.”
In the end, I believe that Baldwin, were he alive to read Near-Mint Cinderella, might agree that the protest novel need not show us characters who fit a type but instead, characters who display the “beauty, dread, [and] power” that makes a novel ring with truth and life.