As the narrator of the novel as well as the protagonist, Bone is recalling past events. The fact that she can see humor in the peculiar circumstances of her birth, her raid on Woolworth’s, and her venture into religion indicates that by the time she tells her story, Bone has recovered her zest for life. Yet it is clear that at the time it occurred, Glen’s abuse warped her personality. Not only was she forced to detach her mind from her body so that she could endure the beatings, but in guarding her secret, she also had to withdraw from the people who loved her. Bone describes how through all of this she clung to her sense of identity, so that, once freed from Glen and from her own rage, she could once again love life.
Anney is a pretty, tender-hearted woman whose flaws are generally perceived as virtues. It is her irrational optimism that first propels her into marriage to Glen and then keeps her believing that he and his luck will change. It is her tenderness toward the weak that makes it impossible for her to turn Glen away. Ironically, though Anney lacks clearsightedness, she does, like all the other Boatwright women, have strength.
Glen, the villain of the story, is incapable of love and rules his life by his own needs. Because he has been rejected by his own family, he needs Anney’s love; because he sees Bone as a rival for her mother’s affection, he needs to destroy her. Although Allison makes his motivations clear, by the time one sees Glen covered with Bone’s blood and whining to Anney, it is difficult not to wish Bone’s uncles good luck.
Granny Boatwright, the matriarch of the Boatwright family, has many admirable qualities: toughness, resiliency, and affection for her offspring. By excusing the irresponsibility of men, however, Granny helps to perpetuate a social system that suppresses even the strongest of women.
Raylene Boatwright, a loving and perceptive woman, finally provides Bone with the maternal affection and protection she needs. Raylene is also important in the healing process, which is just beginning as the book ends. Having seen the woman she loved forced to choose between her child and her lover, Raylene can help Bone to understand her mother’s conflicts and thus to forgive her.
Earle is the most fully developed of Anney’s three brothers. Called “Black Earle” because of his black, curly hair and his devilish charm, he attracts women effortlessly. Like his brothers, Earle is the stereotypical good old boy, with all the vices of the type, but he can also be kind and gentle. Although his good qualities were not enough to hold his wife, they do make him Bone’s favorite uncle.
Bone, the protagonist and narrator, whose real name is Ruth Anne Boatwright. She is called Bone because at birth she was “no bigger than a knuckle-bone.” Her mother, Anney, was fifteen years old and unmarried when she gave birth to Bone, following a car accident brought about by her brother Travis’ drunk driving.
Anney Boatwright, Bone’s mother. Hardworking and poor, Anney hates the “illegitimate” stamp placed on Bone’s birth certificate. To her, it puts authority behind the labels of “no good,” “lazy,” and “shiftless” that others have attached to her and her family all her life. When Bone is four, Anney marries the sweet, pretty Lyle Parsons and has another daughter, Reese. After Lyle dies when his truck spins off the road, she takes a job as a waitress in the White...
(This entire section contains 394 words.)
Horse Café. She meets her third husband, Glen Waddell, at the café when he comes in to eat with her brother Earle.
Glen Waddell, Anney’s third husband. the youngest son of the well-off Waddell family, owners of the Sunshine Dairy, Glen is full of insecurities and self-doubt. Although his oldest brother is a respected lawyer and another brother is a dentist, Glen can barely hold a job and moves from one low-paying truck-driving position to another. Glen is neglected by his father, whom he wants to shock and, paradoxically, earn respect from by marrying into the disreputable Boatwright family and proving himself as a man who carries a knife and embraces violence. Despite a small, thin appearance, Glen is known for his enormous hands and his extreme, sudden temper.
Reese, Bone’s younger sister. A pretty child who is never mishandled or abused by Glen, Reese is Bone’s sometime ally and playmate.
Shannon Pearl, Bone’s friend. A short, fat, half-blind albino, Shannon carries with her a rage and resentment not unlike Bone’s. Although her parents pet and adore her, most others find her repulsive.
Raylene Boatwright, Bone’s aunt. A short, stocky, broad-shouldered woman with closely cropped hair and an affinity for masculine dress, Aunt Raylene lives apart from the rest of the family, alone in a house on the river outside town. the one love of her life, a woman she met while working at the carnival, left Raylene for the sake of her child.
Ruth Anne Boatwright is about six years old when the story opens and nearly thirteen when it ends. Glen's abuse begins soon after his marriage to her mother while Anney is in the hospital giving birth to his son, who dies. Even worse, she can have no more children. Bone, typical of a child her age, does not tell anyone what has happened to her because she does not understand what happened. Daddy Glen makes sure she feels it is her fault. She is a deprived child; deprived of enough to eat and a safe place to live in a home with people she can trust. Since she has had safety and love in the past, it is difficult for her to be sure she is not misreading Daddy Glen's intentions. She is angry with Glen and her mother but is too young to understand and verbalize her anger. From the beginning of her life, Bone is in an unusual position in the family because she is illegitimate. As she grows older, events put her farther and farther from the core of the family, adding to her feelings of anger and rejection. When her mother stands by and allows Glen to beat her and then continues to accept Glen after he rapes Bone, her ostracism from the family is complete. By age thirteen she is able to recognize her anger and reject the mother she knows she cannot change.
For Anney, having the red stamp on Bone's birth certificate declaring her to be illegitimate is more than she can bear. She tries each year to get a birth certificate without the stamp, unsuccessfully. The stamp symbolizes everything she hates about what people think of her, and yet she is unable to change her patterns of behavior. The clerks at the courthouse are visibly amused at her efforts to obtain a birth certificate without the stamp. This is so important to her that she consults an attorney, who also is amused. After giving half her money back, he advises her to wait until the ordinance is repealed. To her amusement, the courthouse burns down first. Anney thinks the most precious gift she could give Bone would be a birth certificate without the red "illegitimate" stamp. Anney is caught in a trap of her own making, powerless to make choices that will help Bone. Poor and a woman, she has little education and no job skills. She marries, only to be widowed by a freak automobile accident, leaving her with two small children, worse off than before. When she chooses to marry the "somewhat sinister Glen," himself a victim of child abuse, she closes the circle, locking herself and Bone into a situation with terrifying consequences. She cannot see the evil in Glen. Anney loves her daughters, and her desire is to have a home where they are well cared for. The reality is a home where Glen acts out the abuse he has suffered, passing it on to Bone. Anney makes excuses for Glen and his inability to provide for the family. Bone refuses to acknowledge Glen as her father, telling him "I'd rather die than go back to living with you." Her refusal to accept his last punishment is the final insult to Glen, the first time she has had the courage to fight back. Even after Glen rapes Bone, Anney finds it impossible to break with him. All she can do for Bone is give her the unmarked birth certificate.
Glen Waddell understands completely that he cannot physically harm Anney in any way. Earle Boatwright and Glen are "workmates" when Glen first sees Anney and remarks on her looks, not knowing Earle is her brother. Earle's face gives him warning that he is to treat Anney with respect. Glen has suffered mental abuse from his father and been laughed at by his brothers for "his hot temper, bad memory, and general uselessness" his whole life. Earle is his ideal, the man he wants to be, whose approval he now craves with Anney his ticket into the Boatwright mystic. He decides he will "shame daddy and shock his brothers" by marrying Anney, since to the Waddells, the Boatwright family is "poor white trash." Bone and Reese experience his family's prejudice against them, and Bone retaliates by stripping the rosebuds from the bushes in the Waddell garden. Glen's marriage to Anney becomes a competition with Bone for Anney's attention and affection, and Bone's refusal to acknowledge him makes him furious. He must then act out the rage, abusing her.
Uncle Earle, among Anney's brothers, is the most strongly defined. He is Bone's favorite uncle, visiting Anney and the girls many evenings between the death of Lyle, Reese's father and Anney's first husband, and Anney's marriage to Glen. After the marriage, Earle's visits become fewer and fewer. Bone regrets this, since Uncle Earle "made them laugh." Bone then has no one who might stop the beatings. Raylene takes Bone to visit Earle at the county farm. From Uncle Earle, Bone gains a small measure of self-assurance when he shows her a small blade he has been able to steal from the leather shop. This upwelling of pride and strength leads to the break-in at Woolworth's, the only way Bone can think of to get even with all the people who are making her life unbearable. It is Earle who initiates Glen's punishment when Aunt Raylene discovers that Bone is being beaten.
Aunt Raylene is "different." She lives alone, by the river, supporting herself by selling produce she raises and jams and jellies she makes. The bend in the river at the foot of her property gives up treasures that can be cleaned, repaired, and sold for additional income. As a girl, Raylene had a love affair with another woman who could not leave her husband and small child. The affair marks both their lives, leaving Raylene to continue hers alone.
Aunt Alma Boatwright Aunt Alma is married to Wade and has several children. She loves her husband, despite his numerous infidelities. The first time she learns that Wade has been unfaithful, she leaves him and moves with the children to an apartment. Bone notes at the time that she looks better than ever before and seems to relish her independence. However, when problems with the children arise, she returns home. Alma is devastated when her youngest child dies. Her husband refuses to have sex with her—and make another baby—and she physically attacks him. She is completely devastated because she has given her life, and all her love, to Wade. In her rage, she destroys many of their belongings and waits at home with a razor in her pocket to kill him. In time, however, she allows him to come home.
Anney Boatwright Anney is Bone's mother. She is one of eight children born to a poor Southern family. Uneducated, underemployed, an unwed mother at the age of fifteen, a widow with two children at the age of nineteen, Anney is desperate for love and a stable family life. She marries Glen Waddell after she comes to believe that he will be a loving father to her two girls. Glen disappoints her—even sexually molesting Bone (though Anney does not know this) while Anney is in the hospital delivering their stillborn child. Anney, however, is determined to make the family work, and she refuses to acknowledge the cruelty that Glen openly displays toward Bone. Instead, she chooses to blame her own daughter for the violent attacks. She does not know of the sexual abuse at this time.
Like many of the novel's characters, Anney demonstrates conflicting aspects of her personality. She is independent and determined—as demonstrated by her multiple attempts to get a new and unmarked birth certificate for Bone, the length of her courtship with Glen, and her prostituting herself to earn money to feed her hungry children. At the same time she is weak, helpless, and even cruel—as demonstrated by her steadfastness in staying with Glen despite his abysmal treatment of her child. Her decision at the end of the novel—to leave town with Glen rather than stay with her child—is incomprehensible to her daughter (and to many readers). Before leaving, however, she does attempt to bestow upon her daughter a new identity by presenting Bone with a clean birth certificate, one that does not bear the damning stamp "illegitimate."
Uncle Beau Boatwright Like Bone's other uncles, Beau drinks too much and has a violent temper. He never cared for Glen, primarily because Glen doesn't drink. With his brothers, he soundly beats Glen after the family discovers his violence toward Bone. After Glen rapes Bone, Beau buys himself a new shotgun in case he finds Glen.
Aunt Carr Boatwright Aunt Carr is the only Boatwright of her generation to leave South Carolina. She was in love with Wade, but he chose Alma instead. Carr quickly found a husband and persuaded him to move to Baltimore, Maryland, where he had family. She returns to South Carolina once a year to visit. She still occupies the role of outsider, for instance, taking Wade's side in arguments and going against her sisters.
Uncle Earle Boatwright Uncle Earle is Bone's favorite uncle. When he is able, he helps Anney's family with much-needed money. He is known as Black Earle in three counties, and Raylene says it is because of his "black black heart." He is a man of extremes. For instance, he is devoted to his family, but his wife leaves him, taking their three children, because of his infidelity. Women find Earle attractive, and he is always involved with a young woman whom he eventually leaves. Throughout the course of the novel, he spends some time incarcerated in the "country farm," or jail.
Uncle Nevil Boatwright Uncle Nevil is known as the quietest man in Greenville County. Early on, he recognizes that Glen could easily turn bad. After Bone's rape, he spends his nights searching throughout the county for Glen.
Aunt Raylene Boatwright According to Bone, Aunt Raylene has always been different from the other Boatwright sisters. Raylene leads a private, solitary life and has few friends. She was wild when she was younger, running off to join the carnival, passing herself off as a man, and falling deeply in love with a woman. After returning home to South Carolina, she took up residence outside of town. She quit working at the mill after twenty years and makes a living by fishing trash out of the river, cleaning it up, and selling it by the side of the road. As Daddy Glen's abuse gets worse, Bone finds in Aunt Raylene a strong, comforting presence and spends increasing amounts of time with her. It is Raylene who discovers Bone's bloody bruises and shows her brothers, thereby inciting their beating of Glen. After the rape, Raylene takes Bone into her home. She tries to make Bone feel as protected as possible and also wants her to understand that her mother does love her despite making the choice to stay with Glen.
Aunt Ruth Boatwright Ruth is the oldest of the Boatwright sisters, and she helped raise her younger brothers and sisters. She is a maternal woman but is somewhat estranged from her own children. Anney sends Bone to help Aunt Ruth as she grows increasingly weak from the disease that eventually kills her. Bone spends most of the summer with her aunt and uncle. Aunt Ruth shows real concern for Bone, asking if Daddy Glen ever sexually abuses her, but Bone cannot tell her the devastating truth. Ruth dies before the novel ends, and it is at her funeral that the extended family learns the physical extent of Glen's beatings.
Ruth Anne Boatwright See Aunt Ruth Boatwright.
Bone Bone is the protagonist of the novel. The story focuses on her life between the ages of five and almost thirteen. Despite the poverty in which she grows up, Bone develops an intellectual curiosity. She is a born storyteller, entertaining her many cousins with the tales she makes up. She also loves to read, spending her dishwashing earnings on second-hand books. She is briefly drawn to evangelical Christianity for the salvation it promises but comes to recognize its falsity.
Bone is an illegitimate child, born to the unwed, fifteen-year-old Anney. After her mother's marriage to Glen, she becomes the focus of his rage and jealousy. He soon begins sexually and physically abusing her. Partially because of Glen's actions, Bone develops into an independent, defiant, and sexually precocious child. At the same time, however, she blames herself for his unwanted attention and feels enormous shame. She acts out her ambivalence. For instance, she does not tell Aunt Alma about Glen's sexual abuse even when her aunt directly questions her, but she still deliberately provokes Glen. Bone's emotional predicament is not helped by the fact that Anney also places blame for Glen's actions on the child. When the family finally learns of Glen's savagery against Bone, the uncles beat him so badly that he must be hospitalized. Even then, however, Bone continues to apologize to her mother for what is happening to Glen.
After this beating, the family leaves Glen, but Bone is certain that her mother will go back to him. When Anney says that she will only take him back if she is sure that Bone will be safe, Bone, knowing the impossibility of that certitude, refuses to live at home: she will stay with Aunt Alma instead. It is Bone's determination that leads to Glen's final attack. When he comes to Alma's, he claims that he wants only to speak to her, but in his rage—and his desire to subdue Bone once and for all—he brutally rapes her. Though Anney witnesses the culmination of this act, she still decides to desert her daughter and stay with Glen. Bone returns from the hospital to Aunt Raylene's house, feeling like the events of her short life have already shaped her into the woman that she will become: a Boatwright woman.
Bone's Real Father Bone knows very little about her real father, not even his name. Anney will not talk about him, and Granny chased him out of town after she learned that Anney was pregnant. He saw Bone only once, when he came to visit eight days after her birth. Granny tells Bone that he has a wife and six children, that he sells insurance to African Americans, and that he has never been in jail.
Deedee Deedee is Bone's cousin, one of Ruth's daughters. She and her mother do not get along. She resents her mother's continuing illness, but she also is angry because she doesn't think her mother spent enough time with her or loved her enough. When Ruth becomes seriously ill, Travis only gets her to return home and help care for her mother by promising to make her car payments. After Ruth dies, Deedee refuses to go to the funeral, but Raylene makes her.
Granny Granny tells Bone stories about the family. She moves back and forth among the houses of Alma, Ruth, and her sisters. She chased Bone's real father out of town.
Grey Grey is Bone's cousin, one of Alma's twin boys. Bone likes Grey better than Garvey because he has a "sweetness" to him. Grey becomes Bone's accomplice for breaking into the Woolworth's.
Lyle Parsons Lyle Parsons is Reese's father and Anney's first husband. He wants to adopt Bone and take care of his family—which will grow when Anney has their baby—but he does not earn enough money at the gas station, and Anney must continue to work during her pregnancy. To earn extra money, he gets a job at the stockcar races, and one day while returning home he has a car accident and dies.
Shannon Pearl Shannon Pearl is a short, fat, ugly, half-blind albino, whom most of the children dislike. Shannon's father runs a religious store and books performers for the gospel circuit, and her mother makes costumes for gospel singers. Bone recognizes her from the revivals and befriends her, drawn to Shannon's stubbornness and self-sufficiency, both traits that she values in herself. She also thinks that Shannon will be saintly on the inside, but she soon discovers that—again like herself—Shannon is filled with rage against everyone who has ever hurt her. Eventually, Bone and Pearl have an argument, but months later, Shannon invites Bone to a barbecue at her house. There, Bone witnesses Shannon's death when the can of lighter fluid Shannon is holding explodes.
Reese Reese is Bone's half-sister, younger by about five years. Until Glen ruins it, she maintains a relationship with her loving grandmother. Glen does not beat or molest Reese as he does Bone; in fact, along with other characters, Bone recognizes the kindness with which he treats Reese. Like her sister, however, Reese is sexually precocious, masturbating to violent fantasies at a young age. Reese and Bone are close as children, but as they grow older, they do not get along as well. Reese resents the tension that Bone's predicament with Glen introduces into the family.
Uncle Travis Uncle Travis is Ruth's husband. He is an alcoholic, but he loves his wife. Bone claims that she never saw him sober until she was seventeen and he had to have his liver and half his stomach removed.
Daddy Glen Waddell Glen Waddell is Bone and Reese's stepfather. He comes from a completely different background than the Boatwrights: his family is middle-class, not poor; his mother does not work outside of the home; family members are professionals, not blue-collar workers or manual laborers. Glen's father owns a dairy; one brother is a lawyer, the other a dentist. Glen is the black sheep of the family, failing at all his jobs, and—according to his brothers—marrying trash. His family looks down upon him, tolerating his presence at family events rather than welcoming him. He constantly tries to win the love of his family—particularly his father—but is unable to do so. According to many of the characters in the novel, it is this lack of love that leads him to desperately want Anney to himself and to treat Bone so cruelly.
Glen first meets Anney through Uncle Earle, and he is immediately drawn to her. He courts Anney diligently, waiting two years for her to accept his proposal of marriage. Though he promises to be good to her and her children, he reneges on that promise through his first act of sexual abuse against Bone. As he continues to fail in providing for his "family," he takes out his rage on Bone. As he continually assaults her, she acts more diffidently to him; thus the cycle of violence is perpetuated and escalated.
Many of the Boatwrights distrust Glen, seeing that propensity for violence in him. When they learn of his treatment of Bone, the uncles brutally attack him. Glen, fearing that Bone will keep him from Anney, rapes her.
Uncle Wade Yarnall Uncle Wade is Alma's husband. He is continually unfaithful to her.