BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : Finding a Life Beyond Nightmarish Existence : GAL / A True Life by Ruthie Bolton , Forward by Josephine Humphreys; Harcourt Brace $19.95, 288 pages


T rue is one of those words so over-used that the meaning all but disappears. Ruthie Bolton restores it. As she narrates, with neither apology nor self-pity, her remarkably difficult life, her voice--its idiom and rhythm, diction and distinctive style--transforms a sequence of events into more than mere chronology.

The tale of the little Charleston girl raised and abused, used and discarded over and over by a family to which she is unrelated by blood, cumulatively takes on the elements of a mythic journey.

Cinderella's evil stepmother seems like Betty Crocker compared to Daddy, the Navy man whose pure meanness informs, directly or indirectly, every misfortune to befall Ruthie Bolton.

He repeatedly drove her teen-age mother (his wife's daughter from a previous relationship) from home. He whipped his children with belts and any other handy object for the most minor offenses, and for the most part withheld love, kindness and financial support.

In return, he expected automatic respect, devotion and old-age care. Amazingly, more often than not, he got just that.

"Gal" is a record of a woman who survived hell--barely--who frequently masked her pain with drugs and alcohol, and then slowly, willfully, fought to forge an independent identity. It discovers the persistent flame of a stubborn candle--Ruthie Bolton's endurance--amid a poverty of affection and material goods that is almost impossible for a reader to comprehend.

Along the way, "Gal" deals unflinchingly with issues of male and female, African American and white, power and dependence, but somehow it overturns every cliche and gradually affirms the power of good in the face of bad.

The publication of this understated autobiography is a story unto itself: a mutual acquaintance told acclaimed South Carolina novelist Josephine Humphreys ("Dreams of Sleep," "Rich in Love") about Bolton's 58-page, hand-written manuscript and urged her to take a look. She wound up doing far more than that.

Impressed by Bolton's unique life and by her natural talent for language, Humphreys took time away from her own work to be, as she puts it, "only a witness and a secretary," recording and then transcribing the book over an extended period of time. She forwarded the text to her own New York agent with a strong endorsement. It was a singularly generous act, and we are all its beneficiary.

"Gal" is that rare achievement that succeeds brilliantly as both literature and sociology. In the process of unfolding one life, it indelibly captures a particular time and place--and through the prism of that meticulously rendered context, it illuminates the common humanity, or inhumanity, of which we are capable.

Unlike ersatz celebrity life stories that periodically float on national bestseller lists (one recent country music star's comes especially to mind), Bolton does tell the truth--all of it, or at least as much as we can stand to hear.

She emerges as no saint--a woman who looks back over her poor choices with as much regret as forgiveness--but as real. What's more, she has the rare ability to stand outside herself, to observe evenhandedly and marvel at her blindnesses.

When her second husband, Ray, introduces her to a huge extended family that, in its welcoming embrace is everything that her own background lacked, Bolton can't cope. "I couldn't accept it from them," she tells us, as frustrated as we by her refusal. "I know it's hard to believe, but I couldn't. Some kind of craziness stopped me."

But she's flexible, ultimately optimistic. She learns. And in the radiance of unremitting love, she flourishes, even to the point of returning to rebuild the house where she was nearly destroyed and nursing her diabetic stepfather.

She even manages to overcome the final indignity of being excluded from Daddy's will and having to pay rent to a couple of hardhearted sisters for the house she had diligently maintained. "Sometimes," she says stoically, "it's best to smile and be happy. And that's what I did. Ray called me a good actress for that."

Yet for all her resilience, Bolton is tough--and no fool. She did what she had to do, what she needed to do, when she needed to do it.

"When Daddy was alive," she writes, "he beat me with his hand, with sticks, with extension cords. He's dead and gone now and I never could say he saw Gal cry. So why was I crying when he died? I wasn't even his blood, I still felt that he was Daddy. He was the only one that I had."

For a very long time, Bolton took her life as it came, made the best of it she could. And then one day she woke up from her terrible waking dream and wrote it all down.

And made it hers.

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