Ruth And The Green Book, by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, illustrations by Floyd Cooper
In commenting about this book a few days ago, I wondered aloud, as is my fashion, about whether this book would make a fitting story for a film adaptation . After reading this book, I firmly believe that a very good movie could be made about this film. Obviously, an adaptation of this film would have to considerably expand the book’s premise, which is a straightforward journey of a black girl from 1950’s Chicago in her father’s car to the place where her grandmother lives in Alabama. The book is a miniature coming of age tale, what the Germans would consider a bildrugsroman, in that it shows the moral development of a girl from having spent her entire life in a small neighborhood to seeing some of what the wider world has to offer, both in its good and in its bad sides. This is a book clearly aimed at black audiences, and makes for rather embarrassing reading because of its historical accuracy in many respects of the period when my father was a small child and just before my mother was born, which was not that long ago.
In terms of its contents, the book is very focused and straightforward. The book begins with the protagonist, Ruth, a clever and alert girl, talking about how her father got a new car for his job. The book does not specify what that job is, but clearly Ruth’s father is an upwardly mobile man of his community and uses his new mobility to visit his mother to show her how he made good after traveling up north during the World War II period (one of the scenes of the book shows him playing music with a friend of his in Tennessee where the two of them talk about their frustrated hopes for social change after having served as veterans). About halfway through the trip, Ruth’s father is told by his friend that he needs to get gas at the Esso and that it is dangerous for a black man to be seen as driving a car in the deep south, a warning that Ruth’s family takes seriously. As it happens, they find an Esso around Chattanooga and buy the titular Green Book, which shows places where blacks were respected, including travel homes, gas stations, hair salons, and the like. The book shows Ruth being kind to a boy and giving him her stuffed animal as a way of helping him calm down from being frightened of his trip, and the fact that Ruth is entrusted with the green book to read and research suggests her family is a lot like mine–putting its children to work who show themselves bright and literate and skilled with maps and books. As Green Books are hard to find these days, having last been printed in 1964, the book’s website (www.ruthandthegreenbook.com) includes an online copy of part of it for readers to see this period book for themselves, if you dig around for it a bit.
This book is a worthwhile one in a lot of ways. There is no mistaking the fact that this book is designed in a political fashion–Ruth’s father is the sort of man who would likely be a community leader, and was certainly a civil rights activist in his own way, and not content to live under Jim Crow laws. Ruth herself is clearly motivated by Christian charity, both in her desire to emulate the matron of one of the traveler’s homes they stop at along the way to her grandmother’s house as well as in her gift of her beloved stuffed animal to a scared little boy later on. Ruth also manages to be written some excellent lines, including the following pointed quote: “Why don’t they want our business? Wasn’t our money just the same?” Why indeed. Reading this book, which has gorgeous illustrations to go with the excellent texts, one is taken back to a time when blacks were just beginning to travel around the United States in their own vehicles, and where the question of knowing where they were welcome was of particular importance. This book has won a trunk full of awards, and it is easy to see why. One gets the feeling that this book was written not only to be read in libraries and schools and homes, but also that it was created with adaptation in mind, with the possibility for expansion into an epic journey of a family seeking to rise above racism and oppression, to celebrate the unity of an intact family, and to show the triumph of human decency of unjust and wicked laws. This is a short book, but one not to be missed.