What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez and a Prologue

reading like a writer

Here comes controversy. I'm going to write about a prologue. (Everybody fights about prologues.) It's short, gorgeous, and appears just before the first chapter of Claire Jimenez's What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez.

If you drew a map of our family history, you might start it off with my dad, young, fat, and handsome, eighteen-year-old Eddie Ramirez, plotting to get with my moms, who was dark-skinned, small and freckled, long black curly hair. Freshly turned seventeen. Her name is Dolores. And you can probably start it off in Brooklyn. Canarsie. Draw a bump underneath my mother's wedding dress–that's Jessica. Then shortly after, in 1981, you can make Jessica a separate person, angry and red, pale-skinned like my dad, screaming to be in my mother's arms. Two years later draw Ruthy in pencil, lightly, because you're going to need to erase her in a couple of minutes. Now, draw the Verrazano, the water, the Island, the dump. Draw my proud family, Puerto Rican and loud, driving over the bridge and a little pink townhouse in West Brighton. I'm the one born in 1986, in Staten Island. They named me Nina. Make me look cute. The five of us seem normal for a while, up until Ruthy turns thirteen and disappears. Now you can rub her body away from the page. Draw my mother sixty two pounds later. Give her diabetes. Kill my dad. Cut a hole in the middle of the timeline. Eliminate the canvas. Destroy any type of logic. There is no such thing as a map.

Call that black hole, its negative space, the incredible disappearance of Ruthy Ramirez.

The passage does a great job of setting up the story that is to come by giving us relevant background information about the characters. Readers sometimes complain about information dumps in books, but often you need the reader to know certain things. This doesn't feel like a dump because it is both brief and unusual. That's the particular joy of prologues, in fact. They can take a different tone and style than the chapter that follows. They can be stranger.

I'm excited by how this one describes a "map." Isn't that exactly what you need when entering a story or a world? Some books provide drawings of actual maps with geo-political boundaries and topographical features. This one gives geographical locations too: Brooklyn, Puerto Rico, Staten Island. But it also recognizes that setting is more than physical place. It's also about history and relationships. It's a map of a family.

Most maps are flat and exist only in two dimensions. This one puts three-dimensional bodies in space and then moves those bodies through time, the fourth dimension, making a purposefully strange experience for the reader. We're asked to imagine something that is difficult to picture because of its dimensionality. I love when a story stretches my brain. The invitation to wrestle this map into a picturable shape, lures the reader into a deeper investment in the story. 

That investment then pays off in a devastating way when Ruthy's body is rubbed out, when you "cut a hole in the middle of the timeline. Eliminate the canvas. Destroy any type of logic. There is no such thing as a map." Because it takes a bit of effort to imagine this map, it feels like a greater loss when it is destroyed. So much more than telling us about a missing sister, this prologue lures us first into imagining her and the place she holds in the family, then rips her away.

(Making the reader work always does this--it creates connection. It's risky, however. Not every reader will make the extra effort.)

The passage is also compelling because it is told through a very specific personality and sensibility, creating a distinct voice. We know right away that the narrator is a character in this story because they express their relationship with the other people. "Our family history," "my dad," "my moms." 

I'm also interested in the way the voice equivocates, using words like "might" and "probably." It's an acknowledgment of perspective, that this map is just one way to understand this family and world. The hedging also makes the voice seem less confident, which feels youthful to me. It might also be explained by the trauma: a sister missing at thirteen. And yet this same personality gets fun--and assertive--when it says, "Make me cute." So it's not all hesitation. Because of the shifting mood, we get depth too.

But the voice does something even more important. It connects the prologue, with all of its strange wonder, to the rest of the book. After this short prologue, the first chapter opens with the same person talking. Prologues sometimes risk falling off of the main story, but a unifying element, such as a character's voice, can prevent that.

I think it's fun that the voice is giving us history before the narrator is born. The narrator did not witness her father as he is described but has heard the stories told about him. Those stories circulate in the atmosphere instead of drawing a straight line. We're not bound by sequential time but have a different, more spatial and also more family-centric, organizing principle. Something about that makes this feel more like a map than ever. 

When the first chapter opens with Nina's voice again, she immediately locates us on the map she's just drawn: "Afterwards, sometimes, as a teenager, I would stand at the bus stop where my sister went missing." And so we're still with this voice--that's continuity--but the story will begin now, here, in this moment. Time is no longer collapsed or made spatial but moving forward. We'll use the map to navigate the story, sure. But our understanding of the map will also deepen and become more complicated as we go.

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