Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All, Laura Ruby (Balzer & Bray 978-0-06-231764-3, $17.99, 384pp, hc) October 2019.
Stop whatever you are reading right now and get your hands on a copy of Laura Ruby’s Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All. If literature exists to make us think, to broaden our minds, to make a difference, then there can be no better a book to read right now. That one of the main characters is a ghost on a crash course with her own past just adds to the inherent drama that Ruby creates in this powerful and powerfully prescient historical novel.
In 1941 at the Chicago orphanage run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, 14-year-old Francesca, AKA “Frankie,” keeps an eye out for her younger sister Toni, struggles to stay in contact with her older brother Vito, who is housed in the boy’s section of the facility, and waits for her father to get himself back on his feet so they can be a family again. There are 900 children in the orphanage, most of them dropped off temporarily by parents struggling through the Depression. All of them are hungry, all of them are cold, and, in various ways, many of them are abused by caregivers who have their own twisted ideas about who is deserving of compassion and who is not. Frankie’s mother is dead and her father, overcome with grief, has been unable to work and support his children. The nuns took them in and now, except for weekly visits from their father, the nuns control their lives. As the book open, the children are dealt a blow in the form of their father’s new wife and the decisions he makes about the life he intends to build with her.
Thirteen Doorways also tells the story of Pearl, a ghost, who wanders in and out of the orphanage, serving as silent witness to Frankie’s travails, while also trying to piece together the mysteries of her own life. Pearl remembers her family and knows she died during the flu epidemic, but why she has remained in Chicago and where she could be going to next are unclear. She encounters other ghosts as she walks the city streets, including Marguerite who teaches Pearl just what she is capable of in her ghostly form. As Pearl befriends Marguerite and helps her confront the events that led to Marguerite’s violent death, she finds herself also drawn to assist Frankie while still, bit by bit, challenging her own memories. As the years go by and Frankie’s life takes increasingly more problematic and tragic turns (the period covered is largely during WWII), Pearl becomes increasingly concerned about what will happen to Frankie and Toni. At the same time her investigation into her own past explodes as all the small threads that Ruby has been patiently casting through the narrative come together in a finale that is truly worthy of bombshell status. We know Frankie and Toni will make it out alive from the short future glimpse in the prologue, but how they get there, and what becomes of Pearl, are unclear until the final pages. That journey is Ruby’s gift, and readers will be shocked, awed, and riveted from start to finish.
The success of Ruby’s Printz Award-winning Bone Gap proved that she is an author to watch, but with Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All she goes in a completely different but equally spectacular direction. The scale of this novel appears small, but it provides enormous insight into the lives of poor American children during the 1930s and ’40s. The author casts her net even wider by embracing the experiences of young women of varied social status, race, and ethnicity by blending the ghost characters and other orphanage residents into the narrative. At its heart, though, Thirteen Doorways is about young women who have lost far too much, been cast aside by those who once held their hearts, and then rose up to find and claim their long dormant power. Ruby is shaking foundations here; she’s making demands and she’s bringing a literary fury that will not be contained. Ignore this writer at your own peril; the armies she’s leading are filled with young women who don’t want to hear excuses. They will make their own way and they will succeed and they will tear down all of the old world if that is what it takes. Hell yeah, for writing this book, Laura Ruby. Hell, yeah.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the November 2019 issue of Locus.
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