IT was the bright, strong voice on the other end of the phone that captivated Charleston, S.C., novelist Josephine Humphreys and prompted her to agree to read the aspiring writer's manuscript.
The writer, known under the pseudonym Ruthie Bolton, had composed a 58-page handwritten memoir that Humphreys felt had promise but wasn't quite there yet. So they tried writing the book in the Southern way: orally. Ruthie told her story, and Humphreys recorded it, then typed up the chapters. The result is ``Gal: A True Life,'' a 275-page sometimes startling account of a woman who rose out of a nightmarish life of abuse, alcohol, drugs, and abandonment.
Ruthie, nicknamed ``Gal,'' is a young black woman who grew up in Charleston. She was born to a 13-year-old mother, who left her in the care of Ruthie's grandmother, step-grandfather, and their three young daughters.
In her youngest years, Ruthie experienced things most children never witness. Her step-grandfather, whom she called ``Daddy,'' was a vicious man. He beat and eventually killed his wife in front of the children after accusing her of adultery. From then on, Daddy became a slave driver. He forced the girls to cook his breakfast and dinner, clean the house, burn the trash, take his shoes and socks off at the end of the day, change the TV stations while he watched. He brutally beat them when they missed cleaning a spot in the bathroom. Instead of feeding and clothing his family, he spent his earnings on liquor and women.
It is in this environment that Ruthie grew up. She began to steal lunches from peers at school because she had nothing to eat. She developed a stutter and eventually ran away to live by herself in a rundown trailer.
Though she stayed in high school, she started drinking and smoking marijuana. She got pregnant and married the child's father, but his mother took away her baby. During the next few years she became more withdrawn, falling deeper and deeper into trouble and despair.
Then she met Ray Bolton, a sweet Florida native who didn't use or abuse her and whose affectionate family showered her with love. At first, Ruthie resisted their outpouring of kindness and was in awe: ``Twelve people in the house, all feeling the same love? I just couldn't figure it out. When only a few people lived at our house, and they had no love. No feelings.... And now the Boltons made me to feel feelings again.... You have to wake up, really. I guess at times you think you're living in a dream, and you really need to wake up. And it happened to me so fast, just like waking up. You think, it might be going to take a long time for someone who has had the life I had, done the things I done, to change inside.... It's like I was waiting for it.''
This transformation, which occurs about three-quarters of the way through the book, is like a light being turned on in the darkness. Until this turning point, the book can be depressing for its candid account of a family in such a dysfunctional state.
But Ruthie's life gradually improved to the point that she became a different person. Her own family life was harmonious. She retained her spirit and joy even when she was confronted with taking care of the ungrateful, difficult invalid Daddy became.
Bolton remembers minute details of conversations, events, and even meals. Her book is easy to read because her language is unadulterated and eloquently simple. ``Gal: A True Story'' is about survival and forgiveness and the healing power of love.