Recommended for ages 8-12
In 1969, a segregated North Carolina town is facing integration, and not everyone is happy about it. Set against this backdrop is the story of 12 year-old Sarah Beth, who is plagued with guilt when her younger sister is hit by a car while under her watch. Sarah’s family moves to a house on her grandparents’ property to save money, which means a new school – one that’s about to undergo integration. On the plus side, that means that Sarah will be able to go to school with her friend, Ruby Lee, an African-American who will be a student at the integrated school. Enthusiastically, the girls decide that they will be best friends in public – something not very common in the area – just like the Freedom Riders; but the girls have a falling out, leaving Sarah feeling more alone than ever. She’s lost her best friend, she’s facing a new school alone, and she’s certain her sister’s accident is her fault.
A work of both historical and realistic fiction, Ruby Lee & Me is a good coming-of-age story set against a time of huge social change.While this is Sarah’s story, first and foremost, friendship and integration amidst the upheaval of segregation and prejudice is a strong subplot. An upsetting incident involving the school’s first African-American teacher is a powerful moment in the story.
The history of race relations speaks volumes in the relationship between Sarah’s and Ruby’s grandmothers: they “gossip like best friends” when they’re together on the farm, but merely nod politely to one another in town; Sarah’s grandmother says, “The creek don’t care what color feet wade in it, but the town pool surely does. It’s easier to be friends away from wagging tongues”. Sarah’s ambitious daydream of she and Ruby being public friends sends both grandmothers into a tizzy; they discourage the girls from inviting trouble into their lives. Ruby Lee is annoyed when she sees her grandmother “trying too hard” around whites; Sarah sees Ruby as trying to be “the boss of her” in their interactions, yet always seeks her out when she needs someone to talk through a problem with.
A note from the author on historical accuracy briefly explains her connection to events in the story and points out little bits of tweaking made for creative license.