The Jewish Thing, Southern Style

Combating both racism and an eating disorder

In one of her incisive short poems, the English poet Stevie Smith assumes the voice of a dead man: “I was much further out than you thought,” he moans, “I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning.” Luckily for the heroine of this quietly powerful novel, Saving Ruth (William Morrow, $14.99), by Zoe Fishman, her friends and family do realize that she is drowning, even while she insists that she is waving. Nineteen-year-old Ruth Wasserman, “Wass” to her friends, “Ruthie” to her parents and her brother, is home after her freshman year at the University of Michigan. Having spent her childhood self-conscious about her weight, she’s proud of her new look — 45 pounds thinner than when she graduated from high school. Trouble is, she remains obsessed with her body, unwilling to eat more than a few calories a day lest her stomach begin to bulge or the line of her jawbone be blurred by fat. Back home in her sleepy South Alabama town, she makes a mental list of what she will do for the summer: “lifeguard, coach, and not gain weight.”

Part of the pleasure of this straightforward coming-of-age narrative is its modest scope: a handful of characters, a brief time period, one small location. Yet within this framework, a significant drama unfolds with wit, grace, and authentic feeling. Ruth — though she does not like herself — is a likable, smart, sassy young woman. The daughter of Jews who had moved to the South from New York (we never learn why), she has grown up as an outsider, realizing early on that her “Jewishness was something people could whisper about.” Strikingly, she notes that while the comments about her weight as a child had hurt her, she could change that. “The Jewish thing, not so much.”

Ruth slowly comes to terms with herself over the course of a summer that includes the near-drowning of a young black child at the pool where she is a lifeguard. She eventually accedes to her father’s desire that she join him at synagogue; she begins, awkwardly at first but wholeheartedly in the end, to embrace herself and her family. When she gets the courage to stand up against casual white Southern racism, we realize that she is also in fact standing up for and defending herself — as a Jewish person, as a woman, as herself.

Perhaps now she will begin eating again.

That Jewishness remains nothing more than a marker of difference, and that Jewishness and blackness are too easily collapsed suggests that there remain important territories to be explored outside the scope Fishman has chosen for her novel. Yet within the limits she has set for herself, Saving Ruth is a smart and satisfying read. Fishman richly captures the feel of summer evenings in the deep South, where the twilight feels “like honey” on one’s shoulders and a boy’s heart beats “like a hummingbird’s wings.” And she takes us fully into the struggle of one young woman to allow herself to be saved by the people who love her.

Joyce Zonana teaches writing and literature at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is the author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrin: An Exile’s Journey.