Bastard Out of Carolina is the story of a young South Carolina girl’s childhood, which, though blighted by illegitimacy, poverty, and her stepfather’s abuse, is made bearable by the love of her extended family and even by the love of the mother who seemed to have abandoned her.
The novel is organized chronologically, taking the narrator, Ruth Anne Boatwright, or “Bone,” from birth to her thirteenth year. While her own experiences provide the narrative thread for Bastard Out of Carolina, much of the book’s thematic content can be found in incidents that Bone does not witness but that are related to her by other characters such as her grandmother, the intrepid Granny Boatwright. These stories, many of them from the past, most of them about the members of her own family, become very important to Bone. She absorbs them and reflects on them, making them as much a part of her own world as the events in which she is personally involved.
From the beginning, Bone has problems with identity. She is born while her mother, Anney Boatwright, is still unconscious after being in an automobile accident. Since the relatives do not list a father on the birth certificate, Bone is officially classified as “illegitimate.”
Despite this unfortunate beginning, for a time Bone’s life goes smoothly. Anney marries a sweet-tempered man, Lyle Parsons, and soon Bone has a little sister, Reese Parsons. Then Lyle is killed in an accident, leaving Anney, at nineteen, a widow with two children to support.
While she is working as a waitress, Anney meets Glen Waddell. Even though her family warns her that Glen has a nasty temper, Anney is lonely, and she marries him. From the first, Glen seems to dislike Bone. While he and the two children are sitting in a hospital parking lot waiting for Anney to have his baby, Glen puts Bone on his lap and molests her. From that time on, she fears and distrusts him.
After their baby dies at birth and Glen learns that Anney can have no more children, he seems to become even more violent than before. Because of his hot temper, he loses one job after another. Unable to pay their rent, the family is constantly moving, and the children are often hungry. The only bright spot in Bone’s life is her visits to the Boatwrights. Despite the fact that Glen sneers at them as “poor white trash,” it is from them, especially from her favorite uncle, Earle Boatwright, that Anney gets the affection and the approval that she lacks at home.
When Bone is ten, Glen starts finding excuses for beating her. Because she does not want her mother to be hurt, Bone pretends that nothing is wrong. When a medical examination reveals the extent of Bone’s past injuries, however, Anney realizes that she must either leave Glen or somehow keep Bone away from him. Since Anney still loves Glen and feels peculiarly protective toward him, she starts finding other places for Bone to stay.
Bone’s first refuge is the home of one of her mother’s sisters who is dying of cancer. Despite the circumstances, her months here are among the happiest of her childhood. As she listens to the stories told by her aunt and by her Uncle Earle, Bone realizes what it is to be a Boatwright woman. As Uncle Earle explains, the women in his family are so strong and so stubborn that they can conquer any man they meet.
When Bone is no longer needed by her aunt, she finds another consolation. After experiencing a religious conversion at a...
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revival, she starts traveling to gospel music performances with a classmate, Shannon Pearl, and her parents, who are in the business. Once Bone realizes that the performers are more interested in liquor and lechery than in religion, however, she decides that Jesus and country music will not solve the problems in her life.
Because she bears her abuse so stoically and even lies when her relatives ask questions about “Daddy Glen,” Bone is almost thirteen before the Boatwrights finally learn the truth. When they do, her three uncles beat Glen so badly that he ends up in the hospital. Glen, however, is still not finished with Bone. Finding her alone, he beats her until she is almost insensible and then rapes her. Just then, Anney walks in. At first she is furious, and she attacks Glen; then, typically, when he begins to whine and sob, she takes him in her arms to comfort him.
After she gets out of the hospital, Bone goes to live with her unmarried aunt Raylene Boatwright, a wise and kind woman who tries to explain Anney’s kind of love by telling about an experience of her own. By the time Anney turns up to tell Bone that she must stand by Glen, her daughter is able to forgive her. Bone knows that this is goodbye; Anney is going to join Glen in some distant place where her brothers cannot find him. Oddly, Bone feels a certain pride in her mother; in her strength, she has shown herself a true Boatwright woman, like Raylene and, in fact, like Bone herself.