Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison

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Overview of Bastard Out of Carolina

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Dorothy Allison's powerful first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, drew enthusiastic response from readers and critics alike. Nominated for the National Book Award, the book and its success brought the author, previously known for her lesbian writing, into the mainstream. Bastard Out of Carolina, which depicts issues uncomfortable to some readers, such as the sexual molestation of children and pre-adolescents' violent masturbatory fantasies, has also had its share of controversy. When Angelica Houston faithfully reproduced Bone's story on film for a cable network, she was told to edit or it would not air; Houston did neither, instead selling it to another channel. Maine's Supreme Court ruled that local school boards could keep the book from being taught, a decision that has led to a counter-group determined to keep the novel in school libraries. Allison is equally out-spoken; she makes no attempt to hide the fact that the novel is partially autobiographical, based on the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her stepfather from age five to age eleven. Her memoir/meditation Two or Three Things I Know for Sure presents a more personal discussion of the "Boatwright" family, particularly her mother, whom she introduces in Bastard Out of Carolina.

Readers respond to Bastard Out of Carolina so positively for myriad reasons. Allison raises a wealth of material and issues, so the reader is likely to find resonance in the novel. It is supremely well written. Allison also presents as a major theme the human search for love and acceptance, a topic that many people can understand and appreciate. At the time of its publication, critics responded to many of these attributes. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly talks about "Allison's remarkable country voice" and the way she "portrays [her 'white trash' characters] … with understanding and love." In the New Statesman and Society, Elizabeth Young discusses Allison's hope "to illuminate aspects of a class that has been neglected and misunderstood." George Garrett, writing for the New York Times Book Review, praises specific characterization, analyzes the function of death in the novel, and raises ideas of literary symbolism. These reviewers also touch upon the crux of the novel: the abuse of Bone—mental, physical, and sexual. Young accurately notes that at one level, "the book traces the ways in which Bone's sexuality is twisted by abuse." Garrett comments that "the most inconceivable—and yet here the most clear—rendering is of how a mother would allow such abuse and how a child could learn to live with it." Anney's continuous assignment of blame for the abuse to Bone and her final decision at novel's end raises questions that perhaps no one can answer: How can a mother treat a child as Anney treats Bone? How can a mother stay with a man who has so severely damaged her child? Allison's exploration of these questions—Bone's attempts to comprehend her past and how it will affect her future—are finely-wrought and haunting.

On a basic level, Bastard Out of Carolina convincingly portrays a poor, white, "trashy" southern family living in the 1950s. The Boatwright clan is filled with women who pop out one baby after another, men who spend their lives drunk and unfaithful and in and out of jail, and under-educated children who will grow up to replicate their parents. Aunt Alma keeps a family scrapbook. What predominates, however, are the newspaper headlines and photographs detailing the legal and social trouble that surround the Boatwrights. Bone knows that Alma's "favorite is the four-page spread the Greenville News did when Uncle Earle's convertible smashed into the barbershop." Bone thinks that everyone in...

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the scrapbook looks "moon-eyed, rigid, open-mouthed, and stupid," and she recognizes her clan membership when her own picture earns a place in the scrapbook. The photograph captures her leaving the hospital after Daddy Glen has raped her. "I was a Boatwright there for sure, as ugly as anything. I was a freshly gutted fish, my mouth gaping open above my bandaged shoulder and arm, my neck still streaked with blood. Like a Boatwright all right—it wasn't all my blood."

In one scene, brief though it is, Uncle Earle gives voice to the feelings of rebellion and self-respect that the degradations of society can engender. Bone is visiting Earle in jail, and he shows her the leather wallet he has engraved using a mallet and razor blades.

"They count 'em—the punches, the blades. If the count doesn't match at the end of the afternoon, we don't get out for dinner. Of course, sometimes they count wrong, and sometimes the razors break." He wiped sweat on his jeans and brought his hand up, palm open. A slender metal blade glinted in the sunlight.

"They think they so smart." He spit in the direction of the fence.... Only his eyes were the same, dark and full of pain. Now those eyes burned in the direction of the guards walking the other side of the fence.

"They think they so damn smart."

My heart seemed to swell in my breast. His hand wiped again at his jeans, and I knew the blade was gone. He was my uncle.

In just a few lines, Allison succinctly demonstrates the disenfranchising of Bone and people of her class; they don't belong, they are, in fact, worthless. "We're smart, I thought. We're smarter than you think we are." She suddenly feels "mean and powerful and proud of all of us."

Such prideful feelings do not last long, however. For Bone clearly understands that other people in southern society look down upon the Boatwrights: they are good for nothing, knowing little and contributing less to society—except for more children they can't afford to properly care for. Anney rebels against this distinction, but she fulfills it nonetheless when she becomes an unwed mother at the age of fifteen. Bone's birth certificate is stamped with the word "illegitimate," which symbolizes for Anney her treatment at the hands of the rigid southern class system.

Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she'd ever spent bent over other people's peanuts and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground. The stamp on that birth certificate burned her like the stamp she knew they'd tried to put on her. No-good, lazy, shiftless.

Anney's numerous attempts to obtain an unblemished birth certificate form a pattern in the novel. At the novel's close, a clean birth certificate is all she can offer Bone. In this action, she attempts to communicate to her daughter that, despite all that has happened, she is a decent person. Bone need not bear the mark of illegitimacy, both through her birth and through her class, that society wants to bestow upon her.

Anney fails in her attempt to raise up the family through her marriage to Glen. His complete inability to hold a job coupled with his insistence on independence from her family actually bring Anney and her daughters to greater financial instability. Instead of trying to fight the social system that labels them as no good, Anney turns to a lifelong habit of denying the truth. At a young age, her daughters learn to turn bill collectors away with the lie that their mama is not at home.

"We're not bad people," Mama told us. "We're not even really poor. Anybody says something to you, you keep that in mind ... we pay our way. We just can't always pay when people want."

Reese and I nodded earnestly, agreeing wordlessly, but we didn't believe her. We knew what the neighbors called us, what Mama wanted to protect us from. We knew who we were.

Attacks against Bone come from even closer sources. Daddy Glen's family are well-established members of the middle class, professional people who live in clean, well-kept homes that the wives stay home and maintain. At a family gathering, Bone overhears a conversation between Glen's brothers.

"Look at that car. Just like any nigger trash, getting something like that."

"What'd you expect. Look what he married." "Her and her kids sure go with that car...."

I pushed my black hair out of my eyes and looked in at one of my wide-mouthed cousins in a white dress with eyelet sleeves looking back at me, scratching her nose and staring like I was some elephant in a zoo—something dumb and ugly and impervious to hurt.

Bone reads the novel Gone with the Wind and identifies with the degraded and despised Slattery family. "Emma Slattery, I thought. That's who I'd be, that's who we were.… I was part of the trash down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death."

Because of the physical and sexual abuse that Daddy Glen heaps upon her, Bone has an even greater reason to feel shame. Judith Herman describes the victim of child abuse in Trauma and Recovery: "The child … develops the belief that she is somehow responsible for the crimes of her abusers. Simply by virtue of her existence on earth, she believes that she has driven the most powerful people in her world to do terrible things." In Bone's case, this shame is reinforced by the person she loves most in the world: her mother. After witnessing one of Glen's earliest beatings of Bone, Anney gathers her daughter in her arms. "'Baby,' she called me. 'Oh, girl. Oh, honey, Baby, what did you do? What did you do?'" With these words Anney establishes a convincing pattern of blame. By blaming her child, however, Anney is able to escape accepting any personal responsibility. She constantly tells herself and others that Daddy Glen really does love Bone as an explanation of why she stays with him. Bone comes to accept her mother's words, a belief underscored by Anney's complicity in the beatings. "When Daddy Glen beat me there was always a reason, and Mama would stand right outside the bathroom door [italics mine].… I knew it was nothing I had done that made him beat me. It was just me, the fact of my life, who I was in his eyes and mine. I was evil. Of course I was." She later confides, "I lived in a world of shame. I hid my bruises as if they were evidence of crimes I had committed. I knew I was a sick disgusting person." Throughout the novel, she reinforces these feelings, at times noting that she is "nasty, willful, stupid, ugly" and again, that she is at fault for the beatings; "I made him mad. I did."

Prior to even entering puberty, Bone begins to masturbate with regularity. She develops perverse and sado-masochistic fantasies. She masturbates while imagining that she is about to burn to death in a fire or that an audience is watching Glen beat her. Her fantasies, however, which she acknowledges got "more violent and more complicated," can be seen as her attempt to take control of a situation that essentially renders her helpless. By masturbating to the "story I told myself about it [the beatings]" Bone is attempting to take ownership of her own body and the trials it undergoes. As quoted in Deborah T. Meem's article in Feminist Writers, Allison acknowledged as an adult, "Putting those stories down on paper … [enables Allison] to shape my life outside my terrors and helplessness, to make it visible and real in a tangible way." Meem further concludes, "Allison insists on the … equation Self-revelation = Life = Survival." Until Bone is able share her experience, she will not assert control.

After the uncles beat Glen following Ruth's funeral, Bone finally comes to accept the truth: "I can't go back to live with Daddy Glen," she tells Anney. Perhaps hearing her mother that day made her realize how helpless Anney was in the face of her desperate love for Glen—and how much danger that put Bone in. Anney told her sister, "I've just wanted it to be all right.… For so long, I've just hoped and prayed, dreamed and pretended [italics mine]. I've hung on, just hung on." With these words come Anney's only acknowledgment of the delusional world that she has created around her family. Still, she returns to this false world of promise as the shock of the brutal events wears off. She swears to Bone, "I won't go back until I know you're gonna be safe," but even after she witnesses the aftermath of Glen's brutal rape of her daughter, Anney can't reject him. Significantly as well, she will not acknowledge her own culpability. With the bloody and beaten Bone in the car watching, Anney holds Glen's head to her belly and pleads, "Help me, God, … Help me." Anney turns over responsibility for what has happened to a greater power, which Bone recognizes as a weakness. "I'd said I could never hate her, but I hated her now for the way she held him, the way she stood there crying over him. Could she love me and still hold him like that?"

Bone's ultimate answer in the novel is unclear. As she acknowledges, "I didn't understand," but she also admits that "I didn't want to understand. Seeing Mama hurt me almost as bad as not seeing her had." For the first time, Bone looks at her mother as a separate being, which she later must do to tell this story. "Fourteen and terrified, fifteen and a mother, just past twenty-one when she married Glen." She recognizes her mother's strength, shame, desperation, and determination, neither applauding Anney for these attributes nor castigating her. Yet, at the very end of the novel, Aunt Raylene comes to her. "I let her touch my shoulder, let my head tilt to lean against her, trusting her arm and her love." With this simple action, Bone wordlessly, yet not maliciously, indicts her mother. At the same time, she demonstrates that, despite all the violence and disappointment enacted upon her, she still holds faith in the redemption and power of love.

Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Sorrow's Child

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Flannery O'Connor once observed of the "Southern School" of writing, in an essay called "The Fiction Writer and His Country," that "more often the term conjures up an image of Gothic monstrosities and the idea of a preoccupation with everything deformed and grotesque. Most of us are considered, I believe, to be unhappy combinations of Poe and Erskine Caldwell." Thirty-odd years later, despite the sparkling research centers, black Congressmen, skyscrapers galore and designer water by the barrelful, Southern writers are still haunted by these eccentric archetypes. And few works are more entrenched in that mythos than Dorothy Allison's latest effort, Bastard Out of Carolina.

This is not to say that her novel is hackneyed or grotesque; rather that, in dealing with the milieu Allison has chosen—poor white folk in small-town South Carolina of the mid-fifties—she skates uncomfortably near the thin ice of stereotype, a feat at once worrisome and brave.

Brave because in so many ways this far more bitter than sweet Bildungsroman's real subject is not "Trash" (the name of Allison's prize-winning collection of stories) but the explosive and often difficult-to-understand world of child abuse; it is also a Faulknerianly bold attempt to plumb the depths of one girl's emotional acceptance, initially, of such cruelty. Yet so closely linked to this story is a particular environment that engenders this particular tragedy that when this environment fails to convince thoroughly, Allison's overarching theme comes dangerously close to running aground. Luckily, she pilots her ship if not always masterfully, often with fine skill.

In this world where "black walnut trees dropped their greenblack fuzzy bulbs," we have Ruth Anne (Bone) Boatwright, a girl-child born out of wedlock, whose daddy was run out of town by her grandmother just before Bone was born. Bone's mother, Anney, bore the child at 15; at 19 poor Anney had married another man, had his child (Reese), and lost him in a freak accident ("'That's a handsome boy' one of the pickers kept telling the highway patrolman. 'He wasn't doing nothing wrong, just coming along the road in the rain'"); and by 22 she had married yet again. Such is the world of the Boatwright clan.

The Boatwrights—as Bone tells us in this first-person novel—are devilish, fun-loving, obstreperous, dirt poor, violent. Bone's three uncles are hell-raising fools who "had all gone to jail for causing other men serious damage." Liquor, women, gambling, brawling make up their nights and most of their days. Bone's Boatwright aunts—Alma, Raylene, Ruth, Carr—band together under the caustic but loving wing of their mother and are all (except one) caught in that endless tension between love of a no-good man and rearing up their respective younguns, fighting off loneliness and hardship and the outside world's dim view of their affairs, aided only by grit, humor and each other. Add on the husbands and a passel of cousins and you can readily imagine this family populating a small county with ease.

Hence the danger. The stereotype of poor white trash: liquored-up, malevolent, unemployed, under-educated, country-music-listening, oversexed, foul-tempered men; and long-suffering, quickly aging, overly fertile, too-young-marrying, hardheaded women. Of course, all stereotypes derive from some root of truth, but for the most part this band of sorry souls lacks the piss and vinegar, the quirkiness and subtleness, the unpredictability and the balm one truly encounters among farmers, mechanics, factory workers and waitresses who populate the Carolinas. Early on, it becomes clear that Allison is intimately involved with that world—she brings so much of her small postage stamp of Greenville, South Carolina, to life—but she seems to trust too often that we will see the charm, the hard faith and the rationale with which these folk operate and which operates them.

When Allison succeeds, she succeeds winningly. Uncle Earle in particular comes vividly to life. "Earle was good with a hammer or a saw, and magical with a pickax. He drove a truck like he was making love to the gears and carried a seven-inch pigsticker in the side pocket of his reinforced painter's pants.… Moreover, Earle had a gift for charming people—men or women." Allison demonstrates throughout the novel how complex a character Earle is, generous and devoted to his family, coming through when he can; but violent to a deadly fault, addicted to teenage girls and of course overly fond of whiskey.

Another character painted with a fine brush is Anney's older sister, Raylene, who had "always been different from her sisters." Something of a recluse, never married, she lives alone way off by the river, making her living by selling canned vegetables, fruit, chow-chow and whiskey, and by fishing refuse from the river and recycling it after a fashion. "'Trash rises,' Aunt Raylene joked the first afternoon I spent with her. 'Out here where no one can mess with it, trash rises all the time.'" Direct, nononsensical and disciplined, she has unexpected resources of compassion and a particularly painful secret—more so than her obvious lesbianism—which creeps out near the novel's end.

By drawing these characters so freshly, Allison gives us two beacons in an otherwise dim constellation for little Bone Boatwright. Neither her grandmother—witty, lovable and outrageous, though never fully seen; nor her mother, Anney, a wispy woman of mindless devotion who flickers in and out of focus, though rendered sharply in her annual bid to get "illegitimate" off Bone's birth certificate and in the annals of her coming to wed Glen Waddell; nor Bone's sister Reese; nor her bad cousins ever come off as more than characters from a country music song.

Nonetheless, Bone herself does march across these pages as more than a Southern-styled Dickensian bastard. Many of her scenes—after she has attained adolescence—are made quite literally of fire. Her stormy relationship with Shannon Pearl, a child so ugly the sight of her made someone exclaim, "That child is a shock to the digestion," is at first a case study in the real behavior of young girls, and ends in an unforgettable scene of horror. Another scene, in which Bone acts out her internalized rage by breaking into Woolworth's after dark, makes the reader fear for the child. And a particularly touching episode in which she visits her Uncle Earle at the "county farm" is perhaps the most moving and deftly handled of all. Brief, poignant, delicate, it comes close to making impalpable emotions palpable.

Of course, the most devastatingly real scenes are those between Bone and "Daddy Glen." Here, Allison is at her most convincing and disturbing. In fact, the scenes and their aftermath are so brutal one wants not to believe them—though a cursory glance at the newspaper or a local newscast confirms that as much and worse is done to children daily. And the most inconceivable—and yet here the most clear—rendering is of how a mother would allow such abuse and how a child could learn to live with it. And, ultimately, how it affects her.

Another of the key fashions in which Allison lets us know she knows from whence she writes is the way death functions in the novel—very like the way it functions in Southern life: to shape and structure the surrounding lives. The death of Bone's first stepfather moves her mother to marry the handsome, though vaguely menacing, Glen; the stillbirth of Anney and Glen's first child (and Anney's inability to have another) leads to Glen's increasing hostility toward Bone; the death of Bone's close friend Shannon leads to her closer and important relationship with hard-willed Aunt Raylene; the dying, death and funeral of Aunt Ruth sets the stage for Glen's exposure to the wider family as a child abuser; the death of Aunt Alma's baby—born with a bad heart—leads to her pyrotechnic mental collapse and to staging the novel's Roman candle of an ending, which—to Allison's credit—is handled not with melodrama, as it could easily have been, but with a calm and quiet understatement that goes far beneath the nauseating violence, and deeply into the complex skeins of love and hate and shame that compel and contort the hearts of those inextricably bound by both blood and heinous sin. Not only does the heart break during these final scenes but the mind expands to understand in a dark new way why the abused make the hard choices they often do; to understand a bit more the strange logic of the heart in the face of such unbelievable cruelty.

Perhaps it's a bit mandarin or churlish to demand that the parts always add up to the sum, for in this case the parts Dorothy Allison has created seem so flinty and true they sing loudly enough on their own. For this reason—pecan pie and gospel music, snuff-dipping grannies and kissing cousins notwithstanding—Bastard Out of Carolina is a singular and important act of art and courage.

Source: Randall Kenan, "Sorrow's Child," in Nation, Vol. 255, No. 22, December 28, 1992, pp. 815-16.

Review of Bastard Out of Carolina

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Set in the rural South, this tale centers around the Boatwright family, a proud and close-knit clan known for their drinking, fighting, and womanizing. Nicknamed Bone by her Uncle Earle, Ruth Anne is the bastard child of Anney Boatwright, who has fought tirelessly to legitimize her child. When she marries Glen, a man from a good family, it appears that her prayers have been answered. However, Anney suffers a miscarriage and Glen begins drifting. He develops a contentious relationship with Bone and then begins taking sexual liberties with her. Embarrassed and unwilling to report these unwanted advances, Bone bottles them up and acts out her confusion and shame. Unaware of her husband's abusive behavior, Anney stands by her man. Eventually, a violent encounter wrests Bone away from her stepfather. In this first novel, Allison creates a rich sense of family and portrays the psychology of a sexually abused child with sensitivity and insight.

Source: Kimberly G. Allen, Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, in Library Journal, Vol. 117, No. 4, March 1, 1992, p. 116.


Critical Overview