“Bone” Ruth Anne Boatwright: The book’s narrator and the illegitimate child of a fifteen-year-old mother.
Mama (Anney) Boatwright: Ruth Anne's mother who has two children very early on.
Granny: Ruth Anne's grandmother whose eight children are Bone's aunts and uncles.
Aunt Alma: Mama’s older sister who has three children—Little Earle, Grey, and Garvey—and often takes care of Bone.
Uncle Earle (“Black Earle”): The charmer of the family who, despite being a divorced womanizer with a reputation for being dangerous, has a good heart and helps his sisters.
Uncle Beau: Black Earle’s brother with many of the same characteristics as Black Earle but is not as dominant.
Uncle Nevil: Black Earle’s other brother, also similar in personality.
Reese: Ruth Anne’s half-sister by the same mother but fathered by Lyle Parsons.
Lyle Parsons: Mama’s first husband, and Ruth Anne’s first stepfather, who was killed in a car accident and never saw his daughter, Reese.
Glen Waddell (Daddy Glen): A friend of Black Earle’s who is from a good family and flirts with Anney (Mama) at the diner where she works, courts her, and eventually marries into the Boatwright family.
Grandma Parsons: Reese’s paternal grandmother who does not have much to do with the family but offers Anney money that Lyle had been due from the army.
Tadpole: Aunt Alma and Wade’s baby, a sickly child.
Wade: Aunt Alma’s husband, although also a womanizer.
Chapter 1: Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison’s intimate portrayal of a poor “white trash” family in South Carolina in the late 1950s, begins with the narrator, “Bone” Ruth Anne, relating the harrowing tale of her birth. Her pregnant mother and aunts were riding in Uncle Travis’s truck when, most likely drunk, Uncle Earle caused an accident. Bone’s mother, Anney, flew through the windshield. Miraculously, fifteen-year-old Anney was relatively unhurt. However, the child, Ruth Anne, was born while her mother was still unconscious.
At the hospital, the aunts could not name the father, who had already deserted Anney. Ruth Anne was certified a “bastard” by the state. Each year thereafter, the mother petitioned the state to change the status of Ruth Anne, but to no avail.
One year later, Mama, then seventeen, married Lyle Parsons, who is a loving husband. However, shortly after impregnating Mama, he is killed in a freak car accident. Mama, who is not yet twenty, is left to raise two children: Ruth Anne and Reese. She takes a job at a mill in order to make ends meet, but she can only stand it for a year. Then she begins working at a diner.
While working in a diner, Mama is introduced to a friend of her brother, Glen Waddell. The Waddells own a dairy in Greenville, and the brothers are not working class like the Boatwright men. One is running for district attorney. Glen is in awe of Earle Boatwright and his “bad” reputation, and part of his attraction to Mama is to shock his own family with his acquaintances. He flirts with Anney often.
The chapter ends with the burning down of the courthouse and hall of records. Although not stated outright, the implication is that Anney is happy that the “proof” that Bone is a bastard has been destroyed in the blaze.
Chapter 2: It is the summer of 1955, and Bone is a very young girl in Greenville, South Carolina. She spends a good deal of time with Granny at Alma’s house, where Granny is watching both Alma and Anney’s children. During this idyllic time, Bone plays with many of the Boatwright children.
Bone also listens to Granny talk about life and being a Boatwright. Granny talks about ugliness—Little Earle, Alma’s youngest child, is teased for his ugliness. Aunt Alma tells Bone about her father, who made a brief appearance eight days after Bone was born. He left without even talking to Mama and, later, married another woman. This is virtually the only mention of Bone’s birth father in the novel.
Chapter 3: Glen Waddell gradually ingratiates himself into the Boatwright family by visiting Anney constantly and smoking cigarettes with her on her porch. He also comes by the diner to flirt while Anney works.
Anney and Glen date for two years because she needs time to get over Lyle Parsons’ death. In a rather awkward manner, Glen proposes and Anney accepts because she has begun to love him. Granny does not like Glen. Granny says, “That boy’s got something wrong with him.” Bone’s descriptions of Glen, though at this point largely descriptive and neutral, do mention his violent temper, his strength, and his big hands.
Gradually, Glen’s ingratiating ways win the family over. The chapter ends with Aunt Alma taking a photo of Glen with his new family.
Chapter 4: Although the Boatwrights are poor and struggling, the descriptions up until this chapter have been largely happy. The drinking and escapades of the uncles are described in passing without value judgments. The tone is positive because Bone’s memories are positive.
Chapter four marks the turning point because the narrator—still only a young girl—must cope with sexual abuse. Her perceptions become tainted by this horrible reality. Although Bone recounts the events in a matter-of-fact manner, the positive tone of the novel is gradually replaced by the recognition of everyday, damaging situations.
Although family members still have doubts about Glen’s character, Anney and Glen marry in the spring. This occurs amidst terrible thunderstorms, a bad portent. The economic and class differences between the families are revealed when Glen’s brother turns down best man honors. The Waddells do not think much of the Boatwrights, and the Boatwrights are very suspicious of Glen.
Bone reveals that Mama was pregnant before the wedding: “I heard Alma tease Mama the day before the wedding that she better hurry up and get married before she started showing.” Glen is obsessed with having a boy. He talks about it constantly and won’t face the reality that the child could be a girl.
While Anney is in labor, Bone and Reese are in the hospital parking lot in the Pontiac. Between bouts of pacing the halls, Glen returns to the car now and again. At one point in the evening, Glen pulls Bone in the front seat with him while Reese sleeps in the back. He puts Bone on his lap and masturbates by pushing himself against her. This traumatizes Bone.