Chapters 1-6: Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2761
“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.
Bone gradually falls asleep and wakes up in the early morning. She is alone in the car with Reese. Glen storms back to the car in a violent rage. The newborn baby boy is dead, and Anney cannot have any more children.
The Boatwright women band together to help Anney recover. Stillborns are common among the Boatwrights, and the women know just how to behave. Glen’s mood shifts from him being despondent to becoming enraged. He is financially pressed and very bitter. He moves his family away from the rest of the Boatwrights.
Chapter 5: Daddy Glen tries to distance his family—Anney, Bone and Reese—from the other Boatwrights. He does not like Granny and prefers to keep “his” children away from her. He describes Granny’s stories as “lies.” Nevertheless, Bone still spends time with the rest of the family and hears stories of how the Boatwright family may have black or Cherokee blood.
Bone relates that Grandma Parsons, Reese’s grandma, gives the family some money that was due from Lyle’s army days. Glen treats her badly and is suspicious. The entire transaction is conducted under tense circumstances because Daddy Glen butts in with needless suspicion. Like the estrangement between Daddy Glen’s family and the Boatwrights, he also causes a rift between his family and the Parson family after this incident. Glen’s behavior causes other people to avoid Anney, Reese, and Bone. There is always the threat of a confrontation if Glen is near.
Bone continues to describe Daddy Glen in a manner that hints at violence and repressed sexuality. Bone says that “it wasn’t Daddy Glen’s sex that made me nervous. It was those hands, the restless way the fingers would flex and curl while he watched me lean close to Mama.”
Soon Glen is laid off, an event that occurs more and more frequently as the novel progresses. The family is forced to relocate. They are never at one place very long. They are often not able to make rent; soon Anney does not bother unpacking after a move, sensing that they will move again very soon.
Bone is only eight years old. She must deal with the increasingly rootless nature of the family because of Glen’s inability to hold a job or maintain relationships. Further, the threat of displaced aggression directed at Bone becomes more and more inevitable. Glen’s hands become symbols of fear and violence that pervade Bone’s thoughts: “My dreams were full of long fingers," she narrates, "hands that reached around doorframes and crept over the edge of the mattress, fear in me like a river, like the ice-dark blue of his eyes.”
Chapter 6: Bone is now nine years old. Things are pretty much the same, but only worse. The family continues to relocate from insufficient dwelling to insufficient dwelling. Hunger becomes a part of the equation, as the family no longer has enough to eat. Anney and Glen argue. Anney ends up dressing in a provocative manner—like a whore—and drives off. Reese and Bone hitchhike to Aunt Alma’s. Later, Anney appears with lots of food; although Bone never says so outright, it is clear that her mother has prostituted herself to feed the family.
As the financial difficulties continue, creditors begin appearing regularly. Anney does her best to shield her children. Nevertheless, Bone realizes the truth of her family’s low social status: “We knew what the neighbors called us, what Mama wanted to protect us from," she says. "We knew who we were.”
Around this time, Aunt Alma leaves her husband, Wade, because of his womanizing, something she's done quite often. She moves the family, including Tadpole, the new baby who is in poor health, into an apartment that also houses a black family. In the 1950s setting of the novel, this indicates a dramatic drop in social status for a white family. Blacks were considered of extremely low social status, and by living with them, the Boatwrights are barely better than the blacks. Eventually Alma goes back to Wade.
Ruth Anne’s story is told entirely in the first person, from a distance of time and emotional maturity. The reader learns this almost immediately when Bone writes that “the first time I ever saw Uncle Travis sober was when I was seventeen and they had just removed half his stomach along with his liver.” Despite the fact that the narrator is older and more mature, Allison writes so that it seems the events taking place are seen through the eyes of a very young child. Bone’s developing attitudes towards herself and her family while coping with a criminally abusive situation become the major themes in the novel. The psychological development is gradual, and it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Bone is only six years old by chapter six (and she is just under thirteen when the novel concludes). Furthermore, Bone’s mother is little more than a teenager herself.
Dorothy Allison became known as one of the few writers of her generation to give a voice to the socio-economic group in American society that has been negatively dismissed as “white trash”— the poor, working-class whites who were just slightly better off than the blacks (the term African American was not yet then in use). The novel contains poignant moments that allow the descriptions of the Boatwrights to transcend mere stereotype; the women are more complex than just chain-smoking baby machines. The men—particularly Uncle Earle—although largely described as uncouth, beer guzzling louts, also have a sense of complexity that goes beyond the “white trash” stereotype. Allison’s tale and her descriptions are compassionate. The description of Bone’s hair being brushed by her mother is quite touching and conveys a trusting bond that is soon to be tragically shattered. Allison describes the family as it is. Love, bonding, and betrayal play a part in this family’s life, just like any other, and social status (or lack thereof) does not hinder these themes from developing with all the complexity with which they occur in middle- or upper-class families.
As indicated by the title, an examination of illegitimacy runs throughout this novel. Bone is a bastard because her mother was unwed at the time of her birth. This classification causes Anney a lot of shame because it implies that she and her child are outside of the system (“illegitimate” means outside legal authority). Not only is this stigma literally true in the case of Bone’s birth, it also applies to the social class of the Boatwrights as a whole; they are outsiders who are looked down on by more “legitimate” families like the Waddells, who are landowners and have sons who are not common laborers.
Bone’s gradual realization of her own low status and her reaction against it is a major theme that is developed throughout the novel. Very early on, Bone sees that there is a difference in the way men and women age: “They [the uncles] looked young, even Nevil, who’d had his teeth knocked out, while the aunts … seemed old, worn-down, and slow, born to mother, nurse, and clean up after the men.” This difference also extends to acceptable behavior; Bone writes, for instance, that “men could do anything, and everything they did, no matter how violent or mistaken, was viewed with humor and understanding.” These realizations lead Bone to become envious of men and boys. Early on, she senses powerlessness in being a woman. However, she is a bit different from other women in that she is tough in a "man-like" way. As her cousin remarks, this is because Bone's “‘got a man-type part of [her]. Rock-hard and nasty and immune to harm.’” Bone’s realization of her second-class status as a female will be exacerbated by her perceived second-class status as “trash.”
Although Bone’s earliest descriptions of Glen are rather neutral, there are ominous hints as to his true nature. Bone mentions his bad temper and fixates on his hands when describing him throughout the novel, and with good reason. Glen will soon look for all sorts of excuses to lose his temper and beat Bone with those hands. Psychologically, Glen is not confident or strong as an individual. He is the black sheep of his own family and suffers from an inferiority complex. There is something strange about him, which causes many of the Boatwrights to regard him with suspicion. With this in mind, the sexual abuse that occurs in the hospital parking lot confirms Glen’s base character. If such a harrowing incident could occur, especially at such a critical time—with his wife in labor—what will happen after the baby is stillborn?
The sexual abuse scene is quite powerful, more so because it is described through the eyes of the child being abused. There is no adult value judgment or voice to intercede and clearly define what is occurring as the criminal act that it clearly is. Rather, there are just the confused emotions of a child. As the novel progresses, the episode is complicated by the child’s inability to correctly understand what occurred and feel free of blame. From this point on, the narrative tone shifts out of idyllic childhood recollection. The narrator is now a victim trying to find a way to cope. Her childhood development is marred by her relationship with her father. Anney’s inability to comprehend what is occurring to her daughter becomes a major theme later on.
The sexual abuse of Bone also marks the end of any possible good fortune for her family. The child is stillborn, an event that further unhinges her stepfather and leads to the family’s isolation. Unable to cope with the realization that he won’t have children with Anney, Glen becomes a burden, unable to hold a job. The resulting poverty, which forces Anney to prostitute herself, further reinforces that the Boatwrights are different from others.