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Review | ‘Probably Ruby’ offers an authentic portrait of transracial adoption

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Lisa Bird-Wilson’s debut novel, “Probably Ruby,” offers myriad perspectives in a multigenerational narrative about a transracially adopted Indigenous child. Bird-Wilson has the reader travel with Ruby, a Métis girl adopted by a White family, through adolescence and into her own motherhood, navigating her identity throughout her adoption journey. With Ruby as the central character, Bird-Wilson’s debut is a much-needed shift in the adoption narrative, long dominated by the experiences of adoptive parents.

The novel begins in 2013 in a therapy session as an adult Ruby tries to make sense of her inappropriate feelings for her therapist, Kal. But before we can really get to know her, we are taken back to 1981 as 6-year-old Ruby plays outside, negotiating the risk of being truthful after her adoptive mother asks if she has peed in the yard.

Adoptees of color with White parents struggle to talk with their families about race

Born at a time when unwed, pregnant teenage girls were sent away and forced to relinquish their illegitimate babies, Ruby was adopted by Alice and Mel, both White, who were to give her a forever family. However, adoptive families are not immune to dysfunction, and her parents’ marriage does not last, failing the promise of a better life.

Each chapter focuses on a person who affects Ruby’s life at different points in time, from before she was born to her adulthood when she attempts to reclaim and preserve her Métis heritage for her children. Filling her home with photos of unknown Native elders and children, she creates stories of the family life she wished for and now wants her children to have. “She saw the ‘family pictures’ as a terrible but necessary lie,” Bird-Wilson writes. “It was Ruby’s attempt to dream herself back together.”

What a Black adoptee wishes her White parents had told her

The complexity and instability of her relationships with family, friends and lovers present an ongoing interrogation of Ruby’s identity and sense of belonging. There are the relationships with both her adoptive family and her original Métis family, each with their own complexities and disappointments. There are the loves she chooses and those she doesn’t, some male, some female, some public and some secret but all leaving Ruby with a fear of abandonment and a reluctance to trust anyone. Among her long-term relationships is one with alcohol, but it, too, lets her down as it could never make up for what she lost due to being adopted.

Bird-Wilson adds historical context through the story of Johnny in 1950, long before Ruby is born, as he attends one of the religious schools for Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families. Perhaps it is not so different from the Canadian residential schools where remains of thousands of Indigenous children were recently discovered in unmarked graves. The abuses in such institutions are well-documented and echo here as Johnny observes priests lurking among the other boys. The implication is that Ruby, too, could have been destined for such a place had she been born under different circumstances.

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While the birth parents of adopted children are often little more than names on a birth certificate or family registry, “Probably Ruby” provides the perspectives and struggles of Ruby’s biological parents, Grace and Leon. Their flaws and small triumphs in a system that shames illegitimacy remind us that original parents lead full lives, marked by the trauma of adoption. Not only is pregnant, unmarried Grace sent away by her family, she is also shamed by the staff at Bethany Home. Even still, she finds solidarity with the other pregnant girls and schemes to escape the home that feels more like a prison.

Both parents’ characteristics and decisions represent an eternal yet frayed thread in Ruby’s life as she embarks on her search for her original family. Her desire for answers to nagging questions will only raise more questions in her quest for anchors of her identity.

Ruby is a most believable and authentic protagonist, which is no surprise as Bird-Wilson is transracially adopted and is of Cree-Métis descent. The author centers Ruby’s experience and adoption identity journey, with her adopters and birthparents as supporting actors and contributors to the loss and shame of her Métis legacy.

As Bird-Wilson mentioned at a literary festival in April, she wanted to write Indigenous joy and have Ruby be everything the author needed to hear, ask and explore of an Indigenous adopted character. Tellingly, Bird-Wilson uses Cree without italics, forcing the reader to put their own ignorance into perspective. The context gently makes it evident that kohkum means grandmother and moshom is grandfather, and that reclaiming original language is foundational to understanding one’s ancestry.

In a time when truth is coveted, “Probably Ruby” is a refreshing reminder of the realities of forced Indigenous adoption and family separation. Bird-Wilson’s writing is at times poetic and ever compelling. We are fortunate to have her and Ruby among us.

Julayne Lee is the author of “Not My White Savior.”

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