Saturday, May 08, 2010

Gotham Gal Review: Diamond Ruby

Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace
Simon and Schuster/Touchstone
May 2010

From the back cover: 17 year old Ruby Thomas, newly responsible for her two young nieces after a devastating tragedy, is determined to keep her family safe in the vast, swirling world of 1920's New York City. She's got street smarts, boundless determination, and one unusual skill: the ability to throw a ball as hard as the greatest pitcher in a baseball mad city.

From Coney Island sideshows to the brand-new Yankee Stadium, Diamond Ruby chronicles the extraordinary ylife and times of a girl who rises from utter poverty to the kind of renown only the Roaring Twenties can bestow. But her fame comes with a price, and Ruby must escape a deadly web of conspiracy and threats from Prohibition rumrunners, the Klu Klux Klan, and the gangster underworld.

Gotham Gal thinks: As a Native New Yorker, I jumped at the chance to review this book when Jessica from Simon and Schuster offered it to me. The 1920's is a particular interest of mine as well and this book captures the excitement and exhiliration of NYC that was even then, the greatest city in the world. And the heroine of the novel is wonderfully endearing without being a superheroine or the book being sappy. Ruby Thomas was inspired by the life of Jackie Mitchell who played minor league baseball in the early 1930's. Jackie had the chance to pitch against Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium before being banned from the sport because the commissioner at the time, a relatively new job, Jude Keneshaw Mountain Landis felt that girls were too delicate to play sports. In Diamond Ruby, Wallace gives Jackie the happier ending that she didn't get in real life.

Ruby is an endearing heroine. Half Jewish and Half Catholic, she's been raised in neither religion but of course that doesn't matter to the Klan. All her life she's considered herself to be a freak because of her long arms and her ability to throw a baseball harder and faster than most men. After a terrible tragedy, Ruby finds that this talent is the only thing that is going to keep her and her nieces alive. Ruby is prickly, stubborn, insecure but at all times incredibly real. She's that awkward girl that most of us have either been in school or knew, the one with very few social skills but once you got behind the masque turned out to be a loyal and funny friend. All of us at one time or another have probably thought of themselves as a freak the way that Ruby does.

Wallace allows the reader to see not only Ruby's good points but also her flaws. She doesn't always do the right thing or make the right decisons. Having been on her own for so long, she does't know how to ask for help. Ruby is fiercely loyal to the people who matter to her, her nieces, Colonel Fielding who hires her for his minor league team and her new friends Helen Connell and her mother. She's tough on the outside because she's had to be.

This book is filled with wonderful scenes and colorful dialogue. The scenes where Ruby has to go hunting for squirrel to feed her family is just heart-wrenching. Baseball plays a huge role in this book, Ruby sees her first game as a child at Ebbets Field (my mother's favorite ballpark), she ends up playing for a minor league team. But one doesn't have to be a fan of baseball to enjoy this novel, although Wallace, an author of four books on baseball history, brings the game vividily to life. The minor characters are particularly well drawn, Allie and Amanda, Ruby's nieces are adorable and although wise in some ways beyond their years are still unmistably little girls. I particularly adored Allie with her candy wrapper collection. Even the historical characters of Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey are vivid and alive characters, not just cardboard cutouts stuck in a book. I've always had a soft spot for Babe Ruth and that continues after reading Diamond Ruby. Also who knew that the Klu Klux Klan had any presence in NY at all in the 20's? I certainly didn't. For Ruby, being persecuted as a woman daring to play baseball is one thing, but for religions that she doesn't even practice? It's an eyeopener for her.

A third character in the book is of course not just Manhattan but also Brooklyn. Both my parents grew up in New York at the time the book is set, so as I was reading the book, I got a glimpse of the New York that they must have known. There was an innocence about this time despite Prohibition and the violent crime that grew up around it. Diamond Ruby chronicles some of the minor players in this world. I admire Wallace's decision to create fictional gangsters instead of overloading the book with two many historical figures. Real life historical events are mentioned but they don't intrude on the narrative.  The book moves at a breakneck speed as it heads towards its conclusion that will make the reader stand up and cheer for Ruby.

On the back cover, author Laura Lippman describes the book as 'special' as she's right. I found myself looking forward eagerly to the next chapter in the lives of the Thomas girls. According to the interview in the back, Hollywood will play a major role and I can't wait to read it.

Verdict: 4 out of 5 Big Apples for Diamond Ruby

Check out the author's web-site at

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