One morning in 1973, when James is sixteen, Ruth decides she’s going to learn to drive Hunter Jordan’s car. James doesn’t think his mother has ever driven before, but she decides it’s time to learn. James is beginning to acknowledge Chicken Man’s advice—he knows that if he keeps up his behavior he’s going to end up like the men on the Corner, drunk or dead. Modeling himself on his mother, and following Jack’s advice to “put yourself in God’s hands and you can’t go wrong,” James prays to God to help him change into a man. It takes time, and James still relies on marijuana to keep from thinking about his dysfunctional family and his mother’s grief.
According to James himself, his turn toward religion helps save his life. He was on a path where he could have easily ended up like Chicken Man — on the Corner or even dead — but by asking God to help him change he begins to grow and mature. What James needs is some outlet through which he can process his grief. Drinking, drugs, and crime were destructive, but religion proves to be a safer and more constructive option.
Looking back, James sees that it took Ruth a decade to recover from her second husband’s death. She mourned her husband, but also “the accumulation of a lifetime of silent suffering,” like the loss of her family, the death of her first husband, and the death of her best friend Irene Johnson, who was like a sister to her. To keep from losing her mind completely, Ruth remains in motion, riding her bicycle, taking bus rides, and walking around the neighborhood. James explains, “She ran, as she had done most of her life, but this time she was running for her own sanity.”
Ruth has managed to escape bad situations and negative emotions in the past relatively easily. After she left her family she changed her name and shut the door on the first chapter of her life. After her first husband died she quickly remarried and somehow stopped thinking about Dennis at all. But now she has no easy way of moving on. As she mourns Hunter she also mourns Dennis, and her mother, and her brother, and all the memories she’s been trying so hard to suppress and outrun for so long.
Even when everything else is falling apart, Ruth finds strength and hope in Jesus, and goes to church every Sunday regardless of how awful she feels. James notes the irony that once Ruth couldn’t make herself walk into a church, and now she cannot live without it.
As both Ruth and James comment frequently, Christianity saved Ruth’s life. It gave her a reason to live, and it gave her tools to cope with the tragedy she faces in her life, and has faced in her past.
Ruth has convinced herself that she needs to learn how to drive, and recruits James to help her. The two of them drive a few blocks down the street to the grocery store, running stop signs and swerving into incoming traffic. Ruth parks in the street with the engine running as she goes into the store, and on the way back she smashes the brakes so hard that James almost hits the windshield. Ironically, although she has since forgotten, Ruth knew how to drive before she was eighteen, when she would drive Tateh’s car around Suffolk. James speculates that “she had left her past so far behind she literally did not know how to drive.” Although Rachel Shilsky was a skilled driver, Ruth McBride Jordan had never driven a car before that day.
Ruth wants to drive because she thinks it will help her family if she can use the car. Ironically, she was once able to drive when she went by Rachel, but she has erased her memory of her past so completely that she can no longer even remember how. Although Ruth’s careful compartmentalizing of memories and identities has made her life easier, this is one situation where she erased her past self too completely.