“Steel Magnolia” – 52 Pickup, #19

Question #19, 9/18/18

Ruby, Ruby, Ruby

from Carolyn J. Althoff:

“Can we talk about Ruby? She’s always in the background but always seems to be a step ahead of Walt.  Kind of like “radar” from MASH.  Where does she come from?  Is there a back story?”

Hi Carolyn,

Ruby’s back story is touched upon in the second book, Death Without Company. There’s a scene where Walt is sleeping in the holding cell and Ruby wakes him up with a cup of coffee and Walt begins questioning her about a relationship that Lucian may or may not have had in the distant past. As it turns out, Ruby at one time appears to have had a liaison with Lucian, also… This comes as something of a surprise to Walt and is one of the themes of the novel—that people aren’t the way they seem when you first meet them, that they’ve had entire lives that you may not know anything about, even in a small town.

Walt inherits Ruby from Lucian, and she really was the nerve center of the outfit when Walt took over and is now as well. Imagine the difficulties of trying to run a contemporary law enforcement office with a boss who doesn’t even own a cell phone or a computer. Some of the dispatchers I know who worked during that period printed out their sheriff’s emails, left them on their desks to be answered by hand, and then transcribed them back into the computer—something Ruby seems to do now as well as she did in the past, but I’m not sure for how much longer. It’s quaint that Walt refuses to join the modern, technological world, but for Ruby it’s kind of a pain in the ass. Things are coming to a head at the sheriff’s office, and it’s possible that when faced with the option of losing her, Walt will have to modify his ways.

There are Ruby stories lurking in the wings, some modern day but also ones that deal with Walt’s first interactions with her back in his high school days.

Most people know that Lucian is based on my father, but maybe not so many know that Ruby is based on my mother. Lilly Johnson was one of the kindest, warmest individuals you could ever want to meet, but you also didn’t want to get on her bad side; one of those steel magnolias, if you will. The touchstone for her character is the scene in The Cold Dish where she dresses Walt down after he strikes his deputy Turk, the character who was transmogrified in the TV show as Branch. She tells him that that’s not the kind of thing we do and that it’s not the kind of thing this department stands for, and if it is then perhaps it’s time she quit. Walt pulls his horns in pretty quick… I seem to recall there were conversations like that between my mother and me during my teenage years.

The character of Ruby is obviously very near and dear to my heart, especially with the advent of Louanne Stephen’s portrayal in Longmire. To know Louanne is to love her and the spark she gives the character reminds me so much of someone I will always love and cherish. That’s the grand thing about placing people you love in your novels, they never really go away and are waiting for you whenever you open the pages.

—Craig Johnson


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