Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison

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Chapters 12-16: Summary and Analysis

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New Characters
Aunt Raylene: The Boatwright's unmarried, childless aunt who befriends Bone.

Cousin Grey: One of Alma’s boys who burglarizes the Woolworth’s with Bone.

Garvey: Another of Alma’s boys who is caught stealing with his brother Grey.

Tyler Highgarden: The manager of Woolworth’s who banned Bone for stealing.

SummaryChapter 12: Bone and her sister, Reese, have reached an age when they often quarrel and want privacy. Both sisters have begun to masturbate, but they can’t find any privacy from one another. Bone observes Reese acting out rape fantasies in the woods behind the house; the sexual development of both girls is imbued with masochistic fantasies.

Meanwhile, Daddy Glen is always in a bad mood. He constantly argues with his father while working at the dairy. His temper is short, and Bone and Reese try to avoid him as much as possible. Anney sends Bone to spend time with Aunt Raylene down at her house by the river. Aunt Raylene lives alone, and from Mama’s questions (“Did somebody say something about Aunt Raylene?”), one might infer that she is a lesbian. Raylene lives alone and has no children, an oddity for Boatwright women. Bone becomes fascinated with this “reclusive old aunt” and bonds with her.

Aunt Raylene’s house is by a bend in the river. Bone begins picking trash from the river—ragged clothes, a tricycle wheel, etc.—and she and Aunt Raylene sell it by the side of the road. One day Bone retrieves two trawling hooks attached to a chain from the river. The hooks are very sharp. Bone forms a sexual attachment to these hooks, which can also be used to climb a tree or house. Eventually Bone confesses to her cousin, Grey, that she has a plan for the hooks: she wants to break into the Woolworth’s. Bone continues to stay at Aunt Raylene’s as often as possible.

Chapter 13: Bone brings the hooks back home with her to Mama’s. Anney notices that Bone has grown over the summer. In other Boatwright news, Uncle Earle is in jail for “busting a man’s jaw and breaking a window down at the Cracker Blue Café.”

Anney also mentions that Shannon Pearl has called. Bone is adamant about not apologizing. Shannon persists, and eventually Bone picks up the phone. Although Bone does not apologize, Shannon invites her to a barbeque. Bone is ambivalent but ends up dropping by unannounced.

Just after arriving and before even confronting Shannon, Bone witnesses a horrible accident. Immediately after her cousin has made fun of her, Shannon carelessly gets too close to the grill with lighter fluid. Shannon accidentally sets herself on fire and burns alive in front of everyone. Bone attends the funeral with Mama while Glen goes off drinking with Uncles Beau and Nevil. Glen has started drinking regularly. At the funeral, Mrs. Pearl praises Shannon Pearl, the child who was rather unworthy of praise up until her death. Bone wonders whether the Pearls would have attended her funeral if she, rather than Shannon, had died in such a gruesome manner. She is very sad, and her own feelings about Shannon change, with her "hardheaded anger" disappeared.

Chapter 14: Affected by Shannon’s death, Bone tries to be good to everyone. She is especially nice to Reese. However, no matter how Bone behaves, it is a rather bleak period for the Boatwrights. Alma has been laid off, Uncle Earle is still in jail, and Aunt Ruth is very sick with cancer. Above all, for Bone personally, the threat of Daddy Glen remains. Daddy Glen stalks Bone both in real life and in her dreams. Bone...

(This entire section contains 2049 words.)

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is always wary of a potential beating, and the atmosphere around the house is dreary with a constant threat of violence directed at Bone.

Bone, once again, dwells on her own perceived ugliness. She loathes herself and is aware of her low class status as a Boatwright. Her inner rage becomes more and more focused on Daddy Glen.

Over Christmas, Bone spends time at Aunt Alma’s, largely to get away from Daddy Glen. The children play games. Reese and Grey fight. Bone reads more and more. She has an active imagination and dreams up a game called "mean sisters" in which the girls get to be meaner than the boys. Relatively speaking, it is a happy time for Bone. Nevertheless, there is no solution to the Daddy Glen situation.

Chapter 15: The Boatwrights have more and more trouble with the law. Grey and Garvey are arrested for breaking into telephones. Nevertheless, Garvey has a certain pride at being arrested, which is typical in a Boatwright male.

The family visits Uncle Earle in jail. He looks rather haggard but is in a good mood. He has gifts for Raylene and Anney. Uncle Earle boasts to Bone that he has managed to steal a blade from the leather shop in jail. Bone is very impressed by Earle’s ability to outsmart the guards. Bone’s attitude towards the law is clearly revealed in this section by her pride in Earle and his escapades.

Bone’s plan to break into Woolworth’s becomes a reality. She meets Grey after midnight on a Friday near the Woolworth’s, which she has not been back to since the candy stealing incident. She uses her cherished hook to climb onto the roof and breaks in through a duct in the exhaust fan. She then lets Grey in through the main doors. The two go on a vandalism/theft spree, breaking display cases and stealing whatever they can fit in their pockets. The theft is largely motivated by Bone’s desire to get back at Tyler Highgarden, the manager who made her feel so low-class after her petty theft years ago. After successfully ransacking the Woolworth’s, the two flee, leaving the door open so that “a group of gray-faced men just down from the Texaco station, all of them looking so much like my uncles it made my throat hurt” could finish the burglary. Bone’s long-harbored grudge towards Tyler Highgarden is eclipsed by the euphoria of the moment. Both Grey and Bone return home very happy. The narrative tone of the novel is never happier than when Bone perpetrates this deed of revenge.

Chapter 16: Bone returns to her bed at Aunt Alma’s without causing any undue suspicion. This is easy enough because both Alma and Anney are staying at Aunt Ruth’s. The next morning Anney returns, shaken. Aunt Ruth died during the night. Bone tries to comfort her mother. Anney reminisces how Ruth was “never pretty” and how Ruth, the elder sister, had practically raised her. Bone feels tremendous empathy for Ruth because, like her newly deceased aunt, she thinks that she is ugly. Anney and Bone are both very upset. The euphoria that Bone felt in robbing the Woolworth’s is replaced by sadness at the death of a loved one.

Instead of harboring crushes on boys and thinking about a first kiss, Bone has masochistic rape fantasies. “I imagined I was tied to the branches above and below me," she says. "Someone had beaten me with dry sticks and put their hands in my clothes.” These frank depictions of Bone’s sexual development serve important functions. For one, the honesty with which Allison conveys these fantasies lends a sense of veracity to the entire text. The adult narrator candidly relates her sexual development, and Bone’s fetish about the trawling hook lends a sense of realism to the work that makes it stronger than a mere retelling of events. Additionally, one can surmise that the content and themes of Bone’s fantasies are a direct result of Daddy Glen’s abuse. While this is never directly stated, it is difficult not to infer a cause and effect relationship between abuse and masochistic fantasies. This is further evidence of how her development is being adversely affected by her stepfather.

One can read Bastard Out of Carolina as a sociological case study chronicling abuse in a very poor, white southern family. As mentioned earlier, the reader needs to keep in mind how young the aunts are in this work. They are all tired and worn-out, yet they are (for the most part) only in their twenties. Additionally, the Boatwrights are rather clannish and keep to themselves. Anney, Bone, and Reese are intentionally isolated. There are few outside friends as important characters, save for the brief appearance of Shannon Pearl. School does not play an important part in the narration, and one might infer that school does not play an important part in the life of poor children in this era. Instead, it seems that the women are expected to get pregnant and marry while the men find jobs as laborers. However, Bone is different. She does attend school and becomes the exception to the uneducated Boatwrights. She becomes an inveterate reader and identifies with characters in the books. For instance, in Gone with the Wind, she identifies not with Scarlet but with the poorer whites. Bone’s innate intelligence and ability to see class distinctions allow her to better verbalize her situation for the reader.

The gruesome death of Shannon Pearl is quite a surprise. It happens without any omens or portents and is over before one can even process what is happening. In this sense, Allison’s prose superbly mirrors the event that she is describing. The reader is every bit as surprised and horrified as Bone and the guests. And much like the guests, the reader is left with a sense of not knowing what actually happened. Just as in the scene of abuse in the Pontiac in the hospital parking lot, the reader has only a young girl’s description of the event. There is no scientific explanation to adequately explain how Shannon burns alive, but just the perceptions of a horrified onlooker. Again, the power and beauty in Bastard Out of Carolina largely resides in the depiction of Bone’s perception of events and the way they affect her. In this case, the death haunts Bone. The entire incident is too ambiguous to simplify. However, it does leave Bone with a lasting sense of the hypocrisy and unfairness of the world.

The incident at the barbeque is but a brief, gruesome interlude from Bone’s dreary and ominous day-to-day reality. Nothing, other than Bone feeling haunted, has changed. There is still the constant threat of a beating by Daddy Glen. Bone continues her self-loathing ruminations: “All of me was ugly, pasty, and numb—nothing like Uncle James’s girls in the white nylon crinolines and blue satin hair ribbons. They were the kinds of little girls people really wanted. No part of me was that worshipful, dreamy-eyed storybook girlchild, no part of me was beautiful.”

Bone is clearly a troubled child. Not only is she being abused physically, the males with whom she identifies are uncles who are constantly in and out of jail. Although Earle looks rather haggard as a result of his latest incarceration, Bone is terribly impressed by him and his cunning in managing to steal a blade. In a very touching moment, she whispers, “I love you” to him. While the strength in Bastard Out of Carolina resides in Allison’s ability to transcend the stereotypes of poor, Southern whites, particularly in the case of the charming, character-filled Uncle Earle, there is an ominous implication in a young girl admiring the man who breaks his best friend’s jaw.

The Woolworth burglary is an example of the culmination of Bone’s ideas of revenge against polite or upper-class society. She has been harboring a grudge for the Woolworth’s manager since the candy incident. To her, the manager stands for all those men who look down on Boatwrights and “white trash.” Whether rightly or wrongly, her rage at her own low social status is directed outwardly towards him. The successful looting of the store forces the reader to wonder and fear for Bone. Her rage cannot come to any good. However, by this point the reader identifies with Bone and feels her euphoria. It is to be short-lived, for the death of Ruth that night turns the novel towards it brutal climax.


Chapters 7-11: Summary and Analysis


Chapters 17-22: Summary and Analysis