When I first read the summary of Jenna Zark's novel, The Beat On Ruby’s Street, which I received from The Bookplex, I thought that it had an unusual focus for a YA novel. Yet in the course of reading this book I realized that the problems that Ruby and her family dealt with are remarkably similar to those that face current families. A book set sixty years ago may seem distant to many readers, but I was struck by how contemporary the issues were.
I thought that Ruby herself was humanly flawed, yet still a strong and appealing character for the majority of the novel. Toward the end of the book I found her somewhat stereotypical. It was at that point that I came to understand and empathize with Ruby’s mother. I admit that I was impressed with Ruby's mother as an artist from the beginning when I discovered that she's a surrealist like Frida Kahlo. The characterization was mostly very good. I was glad to see that the social worker was not depicted as a villain. She was trying to do the best she could for Ruby based on her perception of the situation.
There was one failing with regard to minority characters. Although I loved the pivotal role played by the Latina character, Manuela, I was disappointed that an Asian character rated just a bare mention. It isn’t only a matter of keeping score of how minorities are portrayed. I truly think that Ruby’s brother would have had more depth if the author had chosen to show us his relationship with his Chinese American girlfriend. I felt that this was a wasted opportunity.
Still my verdict on the novel as a whole is a positive one. The Beat On Ruby’s Street provides a fresh perspective on a much maligned decade. The poets, artists and musicians of the Beat Movement represented in this novel were the counter-culture of the 1950’s. People like Ruby and her family fought the dominant message of conformity. It’s important that they be remembered. I really appreciated the inclusion of a bibliography containing some works of the Beat poets, and histories of the movement.
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A Couple of Research Notes
When Ruby sang "We Shall Overcome" as a protest song, I wondered about the history of this song in the protest movement. I found a wonderful page History of "We Shall Overcome" at the Kennedy Center website.
I also found a piece that author Jenna Zark wrote about The Beat On Ruby Street in a spiritual context at The Beat On Ruby Street at TC Jewfolk