Above all else, Ruku must learn to deal with change in her life. The arrival of the tannery is the biggest and most disruptive change but there are countless others: her marriage, motherhood, the fates of her children, moving to the city. Nathan instructs Ruku on the importance of adapting or bending to change in order to survive in life. Like Ruku, everyone faces changes. The way in which we respond to those changes carries over into how our lives will play out. Despite her initial reluctance, Ruku does learn to become adaptable and thus survives many hardships that would have broken a less flexible person. As she comes to know well - life is always uncertain and plans must be adaptable.
No matter what hardships tear at her resolve, Ruku never entirely loses hope for the future. Her ability to find joy in small, everyday things allows her to see possibility even in her darkest hour. Ruku realizes that without hope there is no joy in living and without joy there is no life. Although her hopes are dashed again and again, Ruku never ceases to develop new ones - even at the novel's end, she is full of hopes for the future of her children.
Ruku's family was the most important thing and the one thing she could never fully lose. Her family bonds were certainly tested - she lost sons to death, to moves and to personal weakness but maintained strong relationships with the family that was left. She also understood the importance of love and acceptance of family members even when their decisions or beliefs were not her own. Her relationship with Puli shows her understanding of the need for family bonds. She attributes the lack of such bonds to much of Kenny's unhappiness. Ruku's bond to her husband is most touching and clearly shows the true definition of love.
Ruku's discomfort with the tannery came from the fact it disrupted her traditional lifestyle. Traditional values of family are broken by the tannery: no longer do sons follow in their father's footsteps, and daughters are easily led astray. Ruku's encounters in the city also show her discomfort with modern things: female doctors in pants and latrines for example.
This theme is illustrated in Kenny and Ruku's relationship. Although they were friends, the two frequently disagreed with or misunderstood one another. What Kenny saw in Ruku as ignorance and weakness, she saw in her self as signs of strength and simple wisdom. The best example of this is Kenny's insistence that Ruku should ask for help when suffering. To do so for her would be a sign of failure as in her culture strength and grace were gained only through such suffering.
Nature provides constant challenges in the novel. The poor who work the land are most affected by nature's fury as is clearly seen during the flood and drought. Despite nature's ability to harm, Ruku still finds it a beautiful and peaceful thing - in fact, it is one of the reasons that draws her back to her village. Ruku's statement that nature is like a wild animal one has tamed is fitting.
Ruku is the first person narrator of the story. Ruku tells the story as an old woman looking back on the events of her life, so she reflects in addition to simply narrating. Ruku knows only her own thoughts and information given to her by others.