The Sound of Gravel is in the running for my favorite book club read this year! (Bull Mountain is the other pick I really enjoyed.) It is Ruth Warnier’s memoir about her poverty stricken childhood in a polygamist cult in Mexico, her dysfunctional mother, abusive step-father, and struggle for survival along with her many siblings.
She pulls you in, first line: “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” pg 10, ebook. I read that sentence to my husband and his reaction was, “Are you reading a book about royalty?” Unfortunately, no. Ruthie’s father was a founding member of the “Firstborns”, a polygamist group that broke away from the Mormon church. He believed that, in order to live in the manner that God intended, men are supposed to have multiple wives and as many children as possible, to become like gods in the next life. He lived what he preached. But, unlike members of royal families, Ruthie’s father, and later her stepfather, did not have the resources available to allow his wives to live in houses with running water or electricity. It is a hard existence but Ruth’s parents live it because of their faith.
“After all,” she said, “it is better to have ten percent of one good man than to have one hundred percent of a bad one.” The women of LeBaron (the colony in Mexico) were always saying that…” pg 12, ebook. But what about ten percent of a bad man…
At first, Ruth’s stepfather seems almost normal: “Everyone in the colony was always saying how Lane had a strong work ethic. He spent every day milking cows, planting and baling hay, fixing tractors, trucks, and other equipment- all of which broke down regularly. But in spite of all his hard work, he never made enough money to provide for his eleven kids and stepchildren.” pg 21, ebook. And his family grew larger than that quite quickly. But, after a short time, he begins to show his true self.
It’s hard to imagine the level of poverty that Ruth and her family endured. Every month, her mother and all of her brothers and sisters made their way by bus from Mexico to the US to collect government assistance. The trip took all day and when they got back, if stepfather Lane did not show up at the bus stop to pick them up, they had to walk a mile home. “The rest of us followed silently, watching and listening as Mom took a wide step over the highway shoulder and onto the dirt road, the gravel crunching beneath her footsteps, the sound of home.” pg 29, ebook.
Ruth’s mother tries to do what she can for her children but there’s only so much a perpetually pregnant, struggling mother of five (or more) can do. Some of Ruth’s siblings suffer from disabilities that make it dangerous for them to be left alone with any of the younger ones. After reading what her childhood was like, I am simply amazed that Ruth survived to write this book.
Major trigger warnings for sensitive readers: there are some seriously disturbing scenes of child abuse and domestic violence. But, it is worth the read. The Sound of Gravel is ultimately uplifting, inspiring, and I highly recommend it. A few similar memoirs: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis , Pigs Can’t Swim, or A Girl Named Zippy.
Thanks for reading!