Seventeen-year-old, 6- foot3 Ramona Leroux lives with her father and her older sister Hattie in the dilapidated trailer that has been their home since Hurricane Katrina demolished their house and FEMA’s check was too small to replace what they lost. The trailer is getting smaller by the day, too, because Hattie is pregnant, and their overworked father has let her boyfriend move in when his family throws him out. Ramona has an early morning paper route and a late-night shift at the local restaurant to help them get by. At least she doesn’t have to support her mother, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment and is perennially either drunk or stoned. As her senior year begins, Ramona knows that her plan of leaving town with Hattie right after graduation has become a “Cinderella dream.” She also knows she’s a lesbian, in love with Grace, a vacationer who has just gone home. While her preference makes her one of two lesbians in the backwater resort town of Eulogy, Mississippi, it occasions no remark. In fact, it generates the support of her two co-workers, Ruth and Saul, a sister and brother, both of whom are gay – and also witty, practical, and a lot of fun.
As Ramona misses Grace and wonders if their love can survive separation and the boyfriend Grace has vacillated about giving up, she finds that her childhood friend Freddie, whose family used to vacation in Eulogy, has come back to town. He is spending his senior year in Eulogy with his grandmother Agnes, a warmly tough woman who (we find) has been instrumental in removing him from the girlfriend whose off-and-on relationship with him is deeply destructive. Freddie was on the swim team at home, but Eulogy High doesn’t have one. To keep in shape and apply for college scholarships, he swims daily at the local Y, and Agnes insists that Ramona join them. Always a strong swimmer, Ramona attracts the attention of the retired coach of the local community college swim team, but she originally dismisses the possibility of a swim scholarship as another Cinderella dream. She can’t see any future but taking on more jobs to support her sister and her niece. As the school year progresses, Ramona and Freddie both break up traumatically with their lovers. Partners in misery, they become more than friends, they kiss . . . . It’s all very confusing, and as the rest of her life becomes increasingly chaotic, Ramona’s assumptions about herself and her future waver. Toward the end of the book, she cuts her long blond hair, which Hattie has dyed blue for her since middle school. She has symbolically parted company with the old Ramona Blue, and the book leaves her looking forward to a future in which the only certainty is hope.
“Ramona Blue” has occasioned considerable kerfuffle; some readers have interpreted it as a story that records a girl’s “mistaken” identity as a lesbian and her “cure” by meeting the right man. This reading oversimplifies a compassionate, intelligent book that considers the artificiality of social categories and meditates on the difficulty of escaping them. Ramona’s family is working poor; Freddie’s is middle class. Ramona is white; Freddie is black. Grace is a summer person; Ramona is a local. Family devotion saves Freddie from a destructive relationship; devotion to family threatens to destroy Ramona’s future. The line between gay and straight is simply one of many boundaries that people Ramona’s age have to contend with. Set in a small-town resort beautifully described, this is a book of deep understanding with a generous, loving heroine who is struggling to find a way forward in a complex world.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.