First things first, we meet our heroine, Mademoiselle Ruby Landry, as she visits her mother’s grave. The Landry series is one of the few that gives us actual dates–Gabrielle Landry died on October 27, 1947, which is also Ruby’s birthday. Ruby is 15, which, since it’s a few months to Mardi Gras, sets this book in 1963. I will use this as an excuse to wear more red lipstick than I already do. Ruby lives in a little house outside of the town of Houma, Louisiana, which makes Ruby the second most interesting thing in the area.
Ruby lives with her Grandmere Catherine, who raised her since Ruby’s mother died shortly after having her. Gabrielle, you see, met a man at a fais dodo (a dance) and they had a one-night stand that resulted in Ruby. Ruby likes to spend time imagining what her real father might look like, or what kind of person he must have been to have swept her mother off of her feet. Back to Grandmere. GC is a Traiteur, a faith-healer, because the ghostwriter figured that everyone in and around New Orleans is obligated to have mystical powers in fiction. GC’s husband, Ruby’s Grandpere Jack, lives out in the SWAMPS alone, drinking himself to death. Grandmere kicked him out of her house years before, but Ruby doesn’t know why.
On the night that opens our tale, Ruby and her grandmother are upstairs weaving (they run a roadside stand on weekends, selling handmade rugs and blankets, Grandmere’s herbal remedies and gumbo, and Ruby’s paintings), when they’re interrupted by knocking at the front door. It’s Theresa Rodrigues, a neighbor, whose mother has just given birth to a stillborn baby, so they need Grandmere to come right away since the baby’s unbaptized spirit might start haunting them. Ooooh boy. Grandmere fills up her basket with bottles of holy water and statues of the Virgin Mary and away they go. On the way, Ruby starts to ask (in French) what the hey is going on, but Grandmere insists that she speak English. This is Grandmere’s thing, apparently, that Ruby learn to speak English because someday she’ll live far away from the BAYOU. In English, then, Ruby again asks what the deal is, which, girl, your grandma has been doing this stuff your whole life. Get with it.
There’s some “historical material” about CAJUNS and CAJUNISM and Catholicism and superstition and wouldn’t Ruby already know all this? They get to the Rodrigueses’ house and Grandmere gets to work, putting a drop of holy water in everything around the house that has any water in it, like cisterns or buckets. This will send the baby’s spirit back to limbo. (It totally will!) They go all around the house, but Grandmere’s still not satisfied that it’s worked, until Theresa remembers that her little siblings keep an old gumbo pot (CAJUN) in the backyard and it’s probably got some water in it. They find the pot and Grandmere applies the holy water, and Ruby thinks that she sees a ghostly gray baby fly away into the air. Well, that’s unsettling.
Ruby and Grandmere head home, where they find Paul Tate waiting for them. Paul is the son of Octavious and Gladys Tate, the world’s most unfortunately named couple. Paul’s one of the town’s rich kids, and though he and Ruby have known each other all of their lives, they’ve only recently started hanging out. Paul’s parents aren’t too happy about this, but Ruby attributes this to the run-ins that Paul’s dad has had with Grandpere Jack. Paul is a looker (of course) with blue eyes and “chatin” hair, which is, we’re told, what CAJUNS call brown hair mixed with blond. Ruby thinks that Paul is nice, if shy; I think that Paul is dumber than a box of bricks.
In a note about the stepback picture: Paul is described as wearing that assistant manager outfit in the book. Ruby thinks it makes him look older. Oh Ruby. Grandmere greets Paul, then goes inside after reminding Ruby that they still have weaving to do. Ruby tells Paul about the Rodrigueses’ baby and then they make eyes at each other for a while (we’re told that they’ve held hands and kissed a few times previous), and then Paul asks Ruby if he can take her out the next night to get a cup of crushed ice. BE STILL MY HEART. Damn Paul, you’re both a rich kid and a rich kid with a job. Buy the girl an ice cream cone. Ruby says yes (how could she not??) and Paul admits that what he’d really like to do is take Ruby to the upcoming fais dodo, which is slightly awkward, I’d think, cause of the whole “My mom met a guy at such an event, got it on, had me, then died” thing, but who am I to judge? Ruby is over the moon, of course, but has to ask Grandmere before she can give Paul a definite answer. Paul’s so excited that he backs up to leave without looking away from Ruby and falls on his ass. Oh Paul. Ruby helps him up and they kiss, Paul babbles a little about how pretty and awesome and amazing Ruby is, then he leaves. Ruby goes inside and Grandmere says some ominous things about how Ruby shouldn’t get too serious with Paul, and she hopes that Ruby’s been a good girl, and when Ruby tells her about the invite to the dance, she warns her not to get her hopes up.
The next morning we learn a little about CAJUN food, I get hungry, and we also learn that Ruby is an extremely talented artist who likes to paint pictures of the SWAMP animals and Spanish moss and what not. As they’re working at the road stand, a limo pulls up and a sharp-dressed man gets out and introduces himself as Dominique LeGrand, who owns an art gallery in the French Quarter. He buys all five of Ruby’s paintings for $50 (which offended me until I realized what year it was), but he assures them that this money is only a down payment, and that he’ll send more when he sells the paintings. Grandmere is oddly insistent that Ruby’s full name be displayed with the paintings. They have a good day at the stand selling their other goods, and when Paul comes by for that crushed ice date, he’s so happy for Ruby that he takes her out for ice cream sodas instead. Atta boy. They go into town, where everything is picturesque and there are cypress wood benches and the CAJUN SWAMP TRIO is playing on the street outside of the CAJUN QUEEN restaurant, and everyone’s waking up to say “Bonjour! Bonjour!”, and then of course it all gets ruined by Grandpere Jack making his first non-flashback appearance as he gets thrown out of the CAJUN QUEEN, loaded. Paul and Ruby get him to his boat and take him home to his shack, although Ruby is terribly embarrassed and knows that Paul’s parents and Grandmere will have heard all about it shortly. The shack is utterly gross, covered in empty bottles and pieces of hunting and fishing equipment, muskrat skins, and dirty dishes. Ruby and Paul clean up a little, then they take Jack’s boat, planning to dock it by Ruby’s house, since he can come over in his canoe the next day and get it. First though, they stop and make out a little, but Ruby quickly calls it to a halt once Paul gets a bit frisky. He takes her home and she invites him to dinner the next day. He accepts and heads home. Grandmere has heard all about Grandpere Jack’s shenanigans, but quickly brushes aside some of the weirder things that he said to Ruby while he was drunk (things about money and people being in love). Ruby lets it go, because she’s so excited about her paintings and dinner the next day and Paul.
The next morning at church the Tates won’t let Paul talk to Ruby, but they smile all goopy at each other anyway. Afterward, Ruby goes home first to start the coffee for Grandmere and her friends and she runs into Grandpere getting his boat. He seems surprised that Grandmere’s letting Ruby hang out with Paul, but he’s anti-rich people, so Ruby just assumes that’s the reason. Ruby cleans the house in a frenzy to get ready for Paul’s arrival, and though Grandmere warns Ruby that they’re not going to do anything special, she makes a nice dinner anyway. Ruby waits and waits that evening—Paul doesn’t show up for dinner. When he finally appears, he tells her that his parents forbade him to come, but he snuck out to apologize to her and to Grandmere Catherine. Ruby tells him to go home, since she doesn’t want to be the cause of grief between him and his parents. Paul tells Ruby that it’ll work out, and he cares about her too much to let his parents get between them. Although Ruby’s still uneasy, she agrees not to give up on their relationship. And she doesn’t! In fact, she’s still hoping that Grandmere will give her permission to go to the dance with Paul. And even though GC is clearly unhappy about it (in fact, she even tells Ruby that she shouldn’t settle at her age and should date more than one boy), eventually she just gives Ruby a warning about fate and lets her go. At the dance, some townie boys call Ruby a bastard and Paul gets into a fight with them. The bullies are kicked out, but Ruby and Paul go back to her house so that GC can take care of his black eye. Paul apologizes for the fighting and goes home, after he and Ruby kiss some more. Grandmere is unusually sad and quiet, and tells Ruby that she has to, er, tell her something.
See, Gabrielle, Ruby’s mother, always had some “wildness” in her. Grandpere Jack would take her out in his boat and show her the BAYOU, and she was always right at home there. She was gorgeous, and by the time she was sixteen she had boys lined up to do her chores like a sexier Tom Sawyer. One day, though, Grandmere noticed that Gabrielle seemed depressed and she came to her mother and told her that she thought she was pregnant. Gabrielle refused to name the father of the baby until Grandpere Jack beat it out of her (lovely) and she admitted that it was Octavious Tate.
Ruby is aghast.
Grandpere went to confront Octavious, and between them and Octavious’ father they arranged that the Tates would buy Gabrielle’s baby and Gladys Tate would pretend to be pregnant. Grandmere hid Gabrielle’s pregnancy until she had to be confined to the house (this is not what happens in the prequel), and when Paul was born he was delivered to the Tates.
Ruby realizes what this means and her heart is broken. Grandmere convinces her not to tell Paul the truth and tear his family apart, but just to let him go. Faced with the prospect of destroying his relationship with his parents and Grandmere’s fading health, Ruby decides that this is the best plan. She breaks up with Paul the next day, trying to make it sound like she just wants to see more of the world before settling down—saying that, as an artist, she owes it to her work to meet new people and go new places. Paul’s response is “So you want to be a whore” and he yells at her and runs away. That’s super, Paul, really. Ruby is in a bad mood for the rest of the day, charging a tourist to take a picture of her and Grandmere Catherine, and Grandmere begs her not to become hard and lose hope, but to remember that she belongs out there in the big wide world. Ruby’s not feeling that, though, and all she can think about is Paul’s face as he was leaving. Oh booooooo.