Unlikely collaborators produce a compelling book and a lasting friendship Rediscovering Love

July 17, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

Charleston, S.C. -- What strikes you first about the two women is how comfortable they are together. They sit beside one another, laughing and talking about families and husbands, about good times and bad, and it's as if they have known one another all their lives. But they met only last summer.

What strikes you next is how different these two lives have been.

Josephine Humphreys, 49, is an acclaimed novelist, the wife of a lawyer and mother of two sons at Harvard; Ruthie Bolton, 33, is a former clerk in a garden nursery, the wife of a restaurant worker and the mother of six young children. And while both grew up in neighborhoods separated by only a 10-minute drive, they may as well have lived in different countries. In Charleston, the chances of Jo Humphreys, who is white, ever meeting Ruthie Bolton, who is black, were close to zero.

"Charleston is a very segregated city," says Ms. Humphreys of this historic and captivating seaport which even now remains close to its past. "And while both of us have known people of other races, this is, I think, for both of us an unusual friendship. There are very few people I feel as comfortable with as Ruthie."

"Jo and I, we hit it off," says Ms. Bolton. "I can tell Jo anything."

Which is precisely what Ruthie did: She told Jo anything. And everything.

She told her about growing up in the poor black community of Hungry Neck, S.C., where, after her 13-year-old mother abandoned her, she was brought up by her grandmother and brutal step-grandfather, whom she called Daddy; about the merciless beatings she and her aunts, whom she called sisters, suffered at the hands of Daddy; about the beatings Daddy administered to Ruthie's grandmother, one of which finally killed her; about a life so full of brutality and empty of love that one wonders, finally, how did Ruthie Bolton survive?

She did, however, survive. Even finished high school. And what is more remarkable, she went on to heal those deep wounds by trying to understand her past and forgive her tormentors -- including Daddy, who died some years ago. In some circles, this kind of self-understanding is accomplished through long years of psychoanalysis. In Ruthie Bolton's case, the road she took to arrive at peace and grace lies between the covers of her recently published book, "Gal: A True Life." (The life may be true but the name Ruthie Bolton isn't; it's a pseudonym used to protect her family.)

Her guide for part of that journey was Jo Humphreys. Without Jo's interest and devotion to listening to Ruthie's life story, there would have been no book. And there would have been no glowing reviews from book critics across the country, who are using words such as "powerful," "stirring," "eloquent," and "compelling" to describe "Gal."

And without Jo, it's possible that the little girl who still lived inside Ruthie -- the one called only by the name of Gal -- might never have allowed herself to do what she'd needed to do all her life: openly weep.

Now, sitting in Jo's airy studio -- the very one in which the book was talked out and which used to house Confederate widows -- Ruthie remembers how much she cried as she told her story to Jo. She lifts a doll from a shelf, one that has a tear on its cheek. It was a gift to Jo from Ruthie.

"When you see this doll," Ruthie says, "that tear is from me. I know for sure this is that little girl's tears that was hidden."

"All those years you wouldn't cry," Jo says softly to Ruthie, "you made up for them in this office."

*

It was less than a year ago when the groundskeeper for the building where Jo Humphreys has a studio asked a favor of her. "A young lady I met at the plant nursery is trying to write a book," he said. "And I promised you would call her. She needs some help."

"Oh, no," thought Ms. Humphreys, who at the time was hard at work on her fourth novel. Despite her misgivings, she agreed to make the call. Her first three books, "Dreams of Sleep," "Rich in Love" and "The Fireman's Fair" had established Ms. Humphreys as a leading contemporary novelist. Ruthie Bolton, however, knew nothing of her reputation. "I didn't want to call her," says Ms. Humphreys, "because I'm not a good teacher of writing and didn't think I could help. But when I talked to Ruthie on the phone something happened. I just really, really liked her voice. It was real pretty."

The pretty voice on the phone told Jo Humphreys: "I'm writing a book. It's about my childhood and my grandfather. It's all true. And I'd like you to look at it."

The next day Ms. Humphreys went over to Ms. Bolton's house and picked up the "book" -- a handwritten, 58-page manuscript tucked into a red folder brought home from school by her 7-year-old daughter. She read it that night and called Ruthie the next day.

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