Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison

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Bastard Out of Carolina

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Although Dorothy Allison’s first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, is a story of cruelty, violence, and child abuse, it is also a story of survival and of triumph. At the end of the novel, Ruth Anne Boatwright, or Bone, as she has been nicknamed, is not quite thirteen years old. She already has endured more than many adults, however, and, amazingly, she has emerged from her trials with confidence in herself and in her future. Bastard Out of Carolina is also the story of the Boatwright clan, a rough lot whose gift to Bone is not only a place of refuge from her abusive stepfather but also their capacity for loyalty and their zest for life.

As Bone comes to understand, her own misery is the result of a number of factors. One is the character of her mother, Anney. It is true that, like the other Boatwright women, Anney has great strength. In the first pages of the novel, she is shown defying a courthouse clerk who refuses to change Bone’s birth certificate and insulting the preacher who urges her to submit to the fact of her own sin in producing an illegitimate child. After the death of her first husband, Lyle Parsons, Anney again demonstrates her strength of character by going to work at miserable, underpaid jobs, first in a mill and then in a diner, in order to support Bone and a younger child, Reese Parsons. There seems to be nothing soft about Anney but her smile. Indeed, her reputation for toughness is such that when the courthouse holding Bone’s records burns down, only Anney’s airtight alibi prevents her from being considered seriously as the arsonist.

Along with her strength, Anney has a great weakness, her desperate need for a man. When she was married to Lyle, this dependence represented no problem, for Lyle was a kind and loving person, as devoted to Bone as he was to his own daughter. Glen Waddell is a different matter, for he needs not only love but also an outlet for his own frustrations. When Anney brings him into her home as Bone’s stepfather, all of the elements of tragedy are in place.

As Granny Boatwright observes, there is something wrong with Glen Waddell: He won’t look anybody in the eye. This sharp-eyed old lady is able to see beyond Glen’s superficial politeness, even beyond his obvious adoration of Anney, to his deep-seated and dangerous insecurity. As Bone comes to realize, Glen’s uncertainty about his own worth is the result of his being the only unsuccessful son of a successful father, who clearly despises him. To his father, Glen’s marriage to a member of the Boatwright family is just another proof of his utter worthlessness. When they are dragged to visit the Waddells, Bone and Reese both see how badly they are treated; both Anney and her children routinely are fed outdoors, as if their presence in the house would contaminate it. Unfortunately, Glen is not sure enough of himself to object, to reject his father’s values, perhaps to make something of himself just to prove his worth. Instead, he continues to visit his father with great regularity, each time hoping for a miracle of acceptance that never occurs. Unable to defy his father, Glen strikes out at everyone else: his employers, his wife, and his stepdaughters. As a result, he loses one job after another, and with every failure at work, he becomes more violent at home.

In addition to his insecurity about himself, Glen is afflicted with an irrational jealousy. It is not clear why he resents Anney’s...

(This entire section contains 2823 words.)

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love for Bone more than he does her love for Reese. Perhaps it is because Bone is older and, because of her illegitimacy as well as her complete lack of contact with a father for whom the Boatwrights have nothing but contempt, more totally her mother’s child. At any rate, Glen soon reveals his hatred for Bone, first in words, then in physical abuse, and finally, inevitably, in sexual abuse as well. Because Anney is so besotted with Glen that she will not hear anything to his detriment, Bone cannot confide in her. Furthermore, Bone loves her mother, and she knows that if the secret comes out, the Boatwright men will have no compunctions about killing Glen. All she can do is avoid Glen and try to survive.

When Bone is approaching her thirteenth birthday, her uncles discover the truth. Their reaction is predictable. They beat Glen so badly that he requires hospitalization, and they support Bone in her decision to live with her relatives, rather than with Glen and her mother. This does not, however, end Bone’s ordeal. By now, she has become a habit for Glen; he now needs to torture Bone as much as he needs to make love to Anney. In a horrifying climactic scene, Glen finds Bone alone, beats her savagely, and then rapes her. At the end of the story, Glen has disappeared, and after a farewell to Bone, Anney has joined him in exile. Bone’s uncles continue to hunt Glen, planning to exterminate him as they would any other noxious creature. One rather hopes that they will succeed.

It would have been easy to dramatize or to sentimentalize such an account, particularly since the novel is written in the first person, not by a mere observer, but by the victim herself. Dorothy Allison skillfully avoids such excesses, primarily because in Bone she has created a highly intelligent protagonist who can distance herself from the events she is describing; who, in other words, has learned to be an observer. Bone often refers to her love of books. Perhaps they have helped her to see herself as a character in a story. It is evident that only the capacity to detach herself from her own body has enabled her to survive. At the same time, from a purely technical standpoint, Bone is thus an ideal narrator whose matter-of-fact tone serves to intensify the horror of the events she relates.

Because her narrator is so observant, the author can quite plausibly have her re-create remembered events in complete detail. As a result, the novel is filled with memorable scenes, some of which are hilarious, in the tradition of the southwestern humorists. One thinks of the description of Granny Boatwright supervising her grandchildren, laughing at the half-naked girls tumbling around the yard, carrying on several conversations at once, or of the scenes backstage on the gospel music circuit, when the male performers are swigging alcohol and pinching any available females, just before they head out to bring salvation to their audiences.

Nevertheless, while the author intends for her readers to depend heavily on her narrator’s observations and perceptions of events, she also makes it clear that Bone is limited by age and by experience. At first reading, for example, one is tempted to accept Bone’s judgment of the Boatwrights. From the beginning of the novel, she emphasizes their virtues. Bone admits that in their little South Carolina community, the Boatwrights are despised as much as they are feared. The men, for example, are noted for their drunkenness, their foulness of mouth, their casual fornications, and their violence, both toward their wives, whom they beat whenever the mood strikes them, and toward their enemies, whom they are capable of shooting on sight. Bone also sees nurturing qualities in her uncles, their willingness to spend time with the children in the family, teasing them gently, inventing games, telling them stories, and instructing them in the skills that they will someday need. She also sees their independence, their pride, and their sense of family. In contrast, middle-class men such as the Waddells seem pallid. They may have money, but they are not real men.

It is clear that, like Bone, Allison appreciates the virtues of the Boatwrights. Compared to Glen, they are angelic. Although they would never admit it, however, the Boatwrights are committed to the idea that women were put on Earth to be used by men. For example, when Aunt Alma is pregnant, Uncle Wade takes care of his “needs” elsewhere. For a while, she refuses to live with him. Eventually, though, Alma makes up with him, in essence admitting that because he is a man, Wade should not be expected to control himself. Her attitude is not very different from that of Anney toward Glen; the difference is that Wade is betraying his wife, while Glen is violating a child. In both cases, women are making excuses for men.

Bone also observes how hard the Boatwright women work and how rapidly they age. They marry young, have children young, and spend their lives waiting on their husbands. The men, on the other hand, expect to eat when they like, have sex when they feel the urge, quit their jobs if they get annoyed, and go hunting and fishing when the mood strikes them. If their wives express annoyance, they can always be beaten. In this kind of society, it is no wonder that the women grow old fast. Bone does not seem to question this pattern but accepts the prevalent attitude: that women have no existence without men. It is this attitude that causes Anney to desert her own daughter; without Glen, Anney believes that she would not be a real person. In her defense, it should be remembered that Anney was trained to believe that. She knows from her own childhood that Granny Boatwright valued her boys much more than she did her girls. It is not surprising, then, that Glen puts so much stress on Anney’s having a baby boy for him. Although the naïve narrator does not realize it, there is a profound symbolic significance in the fact that the first time Glen used her sexually, he was in the hospital parking lot with the girls, hoping desperately that his wife, in a hospital room above, was managing to have a baby boy for him.

The only woman in Bastard Out of Carolina who is not an object for the use of men is Raylene Boatwright, the unmarried aunt who takes Bone into her home after the rape and ministers to her with love and understanding. Raylene understands Anney’s behavior and Bone’s hurt because Raylene, too, has been in love. Her lover, however, was a woman who would not leave her husband and baby for Raylene. Thus although she has escaped enslavement to men, Raylene has felt the effects of a social pattern that the narrator innocently accepts, even forecasts for herself, but which the author obviously abhors. At the end of the novel, Bone may find meaning in having the strength of a Boatwright woman, but it is clear that Allison does not think that that is enough.

In her short-story collection Trash (1988), Allison’s characters were the same kind of people as those in Bastard Out of Carolina, described with humor and with compassion, but without sentimentality. Allison’s fiction is all the more poignant because her characters, and especially her women, are only dimly aware of the hopelessness of their lives. This first novel is an impressive achievement.

Bibliography

Allen, Kimberly G. Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Library Journal 117 (March 1, 1992): 116. Sees the focus of the story as the Boatwrights, “a proud and closeknit clan.” Praises Allison for her “rich sense of family.” Allen also mentions the author’s accuracy and sensitivity in revealing the feelings of a sexually abused child.

Boyd, Blanche McCrary. “Dorothy Allison, Crossover Blues.” The Nation 257 (July 5, 1993): 20-21. Allison discusses her work, particularly Bastard Out of Carolina, a novel that has been categorized as a “crossover” book, or one that was written by a lesbian author and has been well-received by the mainstream public.

Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood. “ Born on the Wrong Side of the Porch’: Violating Traditions in Bastard Out of Carolina.Southern Folklore 55 (Fall, 1998): 133-144. Donlon explores the symbolism of the porch in Allison’s book, perceiving it as a space that defines cultural traditions and norms. She discusses the various porches where Bone experiences significant events in her life.

Fullbrook, Kate. Free Women: Ethics and Aesthetics in Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. The discussion of morality in the work of a number of women novelists provides an interesting background from which to consider Allison’s critique of the family, class, and hypocrisy.

Garrett, George. “No Wonder People Got Crazy as They Grew Up.” The New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1992, 3. A highly favorable review by a critic who is himself a much-admired Southern writer. Points to the skill with which Allison incorporates so many details, episodes, and stories into a unified whole. She avoids the dangers of “cuteness” inherent in a Southern setting as well as the sentimentalizing or sociologizing that often tempt those writing about the poor. Perhaps her most impressive achievement is in the use of language, which rings true and yet is as lyrical as a gospel song.

Greiner, Donald J. Women Without Men: Female Bonding and the American Novel of the 1980s. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A feminist examination of the complexities of female relationships. Although the book does not include a discussion of Allison, it looks at the work of her contemporaries. The analysis of Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here (1987) is especially interesting as it draws attention to the impact of an adolescent, female narrator.

Harris, Gale. “Ashamed and Glorified.” Belles Lettres 8 (Spring, 1993): 4-6. Assesses the novel as an “American classic.” One of the major themes of the work is pride, which in excess, as often with the Boatwright men, can be destructive, but which sometimes, as in the case of Bone, is all that enables one to endure. Another theme is human vulnerability, as seen in the universal need for love. Praises Allison’s descriptive prose, her “emotional intensity and honesty,” and her “complex and compassionate” characterization.

Hawthorne, Mary. “Born of Ignorance.” The Times Literary Supplement, August 14, 1992, 18. Sees the main subjects of the novel as the “complexity of cruelty,” the product of poverty, “social inequity,” and “the psychosis of the family.” The defects of Bastard Out of Carolina include a lack of unity, excessive “wisecracking bonhomie” on the part of the Boatwrights, and sometimes, particularly in the case of Glen, unconvincing characterization. Finds the book, however, vivid, compelling, and emotionally honest.

Horvitz, Deborah. “ Sadism Demands a Story’: Oedipus, Feminism, and Sexuality in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” Contemporary Literature 39 (Summer, 1998): 238-261. Horvitz draws parallels between Jones’s and Allison’s novels, focusing on the trauma enacted on the female body in both books, and emphasizing the need to move into the future without repressing the memory of the sadism of the past.

Irving, Katrina. “ Writing It Down So That It Would Be Real’: Narrative Strategies in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” College Literature 25 (Spring, 1998): 94-107. Discusses Allison’s strategy of disavowal in her portrayal of poor Southern characters in her novel. Irving maintains that such a strategy is in keeping with Allison’s self-designation as an iconoclast, influenced by her desire to assert her true sexuality.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, February 1, 1992, p. 126.

Lambda Book Report. III, May, 1992, p. 42.

Library Journal. CXVII, March 1, 1992, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 16, 1992, p. 6.

McDonald, Kathlene. “Talking Trash, Talking Back: Resistance to Stereotypes in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.Women’s Studies Quarterly 26 (Spring-Summer, 1998): 15. McDonald sees Allison’s novel as a presentation of “an insider’s perception of so-called white trash experiences which help those on the outside understand the reality and diversity of those experiences.” McDonald evaluates Allison’s work from a pedagogical point of view.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, July 5, 1992, p. 3.

Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, ed. Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. This collection of essays on Southern women writers shows the breadth of their concerns. The checklist of sources at the end provides a bibliography of works by Allison’s contemporaries.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, January 27, 1992, p. 88.

San Francisco Chronicle. April 19, 1992, p. REV7.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 14, 1992, p. 18.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 3, 1992, p. 11.

Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Important comparative themes include discussions of Southern daughters, rural life, and the struggle for freedom.

Women’s Review of Books. IX, July, 1992, p. 15.

Young, Elizabeth. “Trash Tales.” New Statesman 234 (January 8, 1993): 41-42. Allison’s aim is to portray accurately a social class “that has been neglected and misunderstood by other novelists.” Because of her “force and accuracy,” she is more successful than such notable writers as Bobbie Ann Mason and Carolyn Chute. Young also admires her clean style, which, though avoiding dialect, has captured the “rhythms of Southern speech.”

Form and Content

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Bastard Out of Carolina is a young girl’s story of growing up poor and white in the rural South. It presents a stark contrast between her hopes and dreams, the strength of the women in her extended family, and the hopes and fears that keep them together amid hunger and poverty and the horrors of abuse by her stepfather, the violence that is always part of daily life, and a growing realization that sometimes love is not enough.

Bone’s story begins with her illegitimate birth, how she came to be a bastard in the state of South Carolina. Her mother, Anney Boatwright, tries year after year to get the courthouse clerk to issue a birth certificate without an “illegitimate” stamp on it. She fails, but, fortunately, the courthouse, complete with all of its records, burns down. Soon after, Anney marries her third husband, Glen Waddell, the black sheep of a well-off family. When Anney becomes pregnant, Glen is ecstatic, patting her stomach and bragging about his “boy.” The night she goes into labor, Glen, Bone, and Bone’s younger sister, Reese, wait in the car in the hospital parking lot. Shortly before dawn, Glen takes Bone in his lap, shoves one hand up against her underwear, between her legs, and with his other, masturbates. Afterward, he returns to the hospital to discover that Anney has lost the baby boy and is no longer able to bear children.

Following Anney’s recovery, Glen moves the family away from the Boatwright clan and into the first of many small, rented houses. He has difficulty keeping a job, and the jobs that he does get pay too poorly to cover rent, food, and clothes for the family. With each move, Glen promises that things will be different, that this time he will make it. Yet, by the time Bone is ten, hunger has become part of everyday life. Her mother is working harder and harder, and Glen spends more and more time at home, grabbing, shaking, and rubbing his hands up and down Bone. He begins to beat her regularly, taking her into the bathroom and thrashing her with his belts. After Bone’s collarbone is broken for the second time, an intern at the hospital takes X-rays that reveal a number of injuries, including a broken tailbone. The doctor tries to persuade Bone to describe what has happened to her, but she clings to Anney and asks to go home. Anney leaves Glen, but within two weeks, after he has weepingly begged forgiveness and sworn never to hurt Bone again, the family is back together.

Anney tries to keep Bone away from Glen, taking Bone with her to the diner and sending her to spend the summer with her dying Aunt Ruth. While living with her aunt, Bone discovers gospel music and Jesus. Moved by a revival message teaching the worthlessness and sinfulness of humankind and the glory and forgiveness of God, Bone latches onto what feels to her as the cleansing power of the music. No matter how she tries, however, she does not have the voice to be a gospel singer. In addition, although she comes close to being “saved” or “born-again” fourteen times in fourteen different Baptist churches, she never shakes her feeling of guilt or experiences redemption. She does, however, become acquainted with Shannon Pearl, whose father books singers on the gospel circuit and whose mother runs the Christian bookstore. Bone travels to churches and revivals with the Pearls until she and Shannon have a fight during which Shannon calls her “trash” and she tells Shannon that she is “ugly, ugly, ugly.” Although they no longer associate with each other, Shannon eventually invites Bone to a barbecue at her house. There Bone watches while Shannon sprays lighter fluid on the grill and bursts into flames.

The day before Aunt Ruth’s funeral, Glen severely beats Bone. That evening, her Aunt Raylene discovers the bloody stripes and wounds. Bone’s uncles beat Glen. While he is in the hospital, Anney and her daughters move to a tiny apartment. Within a week or two, the baby daughter of another aunt, Aunt Alma, dies, and Aunt Alma goes crazy. Anney and Bone rush to her aid, Bone staying on to help as her aunt improves. While she is living there, Reese tells her that their mother has started talking to Glen again. One afternoon when Aunt Alma is working in the garden, Glen shows up at the house, urging Bone to tell her mother to come back to him. As his anger increases, he grabs Bone, throwing her to the floor, breaking her arm, and raping her. At this point, Anney enters the room. Later, when Bone is at the hospital, Anney and Glen are nowhere to be found, and Aunt Raylene takes Bone home with her. Eventually, Anney returns to tell Bone that she loves her and then leaves with Glen. Before she leaves, she gives Bone a birth certificate unmarked by the stamp “illegitimate.”

Context

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Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina incorporates a number of themes central to women’s writing and feminist literature. First, in keeping with feminist insights into the pervasiveness and harm of incest and sexual abuse, it shows the reality of violence in the family, drawing the reader’s attention to the internalization of guilt and shame felt by many victims of incest. It gives voice to the sense of abused daughters and stepdaughters that they must have been bad, somehow, that they must have done something to deserve the punishment inflicted upon them. Second, as a story of poverty, Bastard Out of Carolina captures the daily struggle of the millions of women who live below the poverty line. It describes the efforts of women to feed their children when all they have is ketchup and crackers. It recounts the seemingly endless cycle of poverty: trying to work without child care, trying to escape the pressures of landlords and collection agencies while keeping shoes on the children’s feet. Third, Bastard Out of Carolina describes the continued difference between what society expects of men and women. The men in the Boatwright family are free to do anything. Bone’s uncles’ lives are violent, filled with drunken binges, car and truck racing, and violent knife fights. Women treat them like the overgrown children they are, protecting them, excusing their mistakes, trying to “make everything alright.”

Bastard Out of Carolina, however, also reworks a number of themes often present in women’s writings. Bone’s anger and honesty make her more akin to Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) than to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)—another female, adolescent, Southern narrator. Indeed, with such a narrator as Bone, Allison is able to work beyond sentimental understandings of adolescent female sexuality, showing that violence may have an erotic dimension for women. Furthermore, the fragility and failure of female bonding in general, and the mother-daughter bond in particular, suggest that Allison is more skeptical of the positive potential of feminine virtues of maternal caring and nurturance than some women writers. Although Bone may long for her mother, the fact that this longing is never fulfilled challenges readers to rethink commonly accepted views of mothering. Finally, by bringing in a positive lesbian character without making her sexuality a central theme or issue, Allison points toward a new possibility in women’s literature: lesbian characters secure in their lives and sexuality and capable of playing an important role in narratives exceeding the scope of the problematic of gender. Since Bastard Out of Carolina is Allison’s first novel, one can only hope that she will continue to develop such characters in the future, providing them with the same richness and depth she has given the Boatwrights and those around them.

Historical Context

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A Prosperous Nation?
For many Americans, the 1950s was a decade of economic prosperity. Unemployment and inflation remained low, generally below 5 percent. By the middle of the decade, more than 60 percent of Americans earned a middle-class income, which at that time was a salary between $3,000 and $10,000 a year. The number of homeowners increased by over 21 million during this decade, and people enjoyed material comforts and the benefits of household inventions and improvements. Government programs benefited many Americans. Social security and unemployment benefits also expanded in the mid-1950s, and the minimum wage increased. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also supported the largest increase in educational spending up to that time.

Nearly 40 million Americans, however, lived near or below the poverty line of $3,000 for a family of four, as determined by a 1957 study. As the middle class saw their incomes rise, poor Americans were increasingly earning a lesser portion of the nation's wealth. This was particularly true for African Americans and members of minority groups. Of poor Americans, almost one half lived in rural areas and suffered from inadequate medical care and a lack of education.

The South
Many rural Southerners moved to cities in search of a better life and higher-paying jobs. African Americans made up the single largest group in the rural-to-urban movement. In a continuation of the Great Migration, which had begun during World War II many African Americans left the South to find work in the industrial North. This movement peaked in the mid-1950s, when some northern cities saw their African-American population growing by about 2,000 each week.

A religious revival took place in the late 1950s but was more pronounced in the South, where many people attended outdoor evangelical revivals. The minister Billy Graham founded his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950, which promoted crusades, developed radio and television programs, and produced films.

Women in the 1950s
Many women in the 1950s stayed at home and took care of their families and households, though a large percentage worked outside of the home, often part-time. It had long been common for mothers of poor families to work for wages, but an increasing number of women joining the workforce were middle-class mothers. In general, women often faced discrimination and exploitation both at home and at work. Women often held jobs that were either part-time or low-level with little chance of career advancement. Fewer women were attending college, as well. Many women's colleges either closed during the decade or became coeducational institutions.

The Fledgling Civil Rights Movement
Protest movements took place in the 1950s to try to change discriminatory racial practices. In 1955, African-American citizens in Montgomery, Alabama, launched a bus boycott in an attempt to end segregation on public transportation. For almost a year, thousands of African Americans stopped riding the buses. In 1956, the Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional. This struggle not only integrated the bus system, but it also brought a new civil rights leader to the forefront: Martin Luther King, Jr. Two years earlier, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in the monumental decision Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka that the segregation of school by race was unconstitutional. As a result of this decision, states throughout the South moved to desegregate their schools—most unwillingly, however.

A Society of Conformity
The 1950s society was generally dominated by the idea of conformity. For instance, in the suburbs, houses looked the same on the outside and had the same floor plan on the inside. Some teenagers challenged this conformity through literature that mocked the hypocritical adult world, as well as through rock 'n' roll, which many parents disliked. Adults also challenged the conformity of American life. John Kenneth Galbraith argued in his 1958 book An Affluent Society that Americans were ignoring pressing social issues in their pursuit of material possessions and comfort. A group of writers and poets known as the Beats challenged literary and lifestyle conventions of the middle class. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, one of the best-known Beat works, celebrated the search for individual identity. Other novelists such as Ralph Ellison discussed the experiences of those Americans who faced poverty and discrimination.

Literary Style

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Symbolism
Bone's birth certificate is the primary symbol of the novel. Stamped with the word illegitimate, it decries the circumstances of Bone's birth. Symbolically, as long as the birth certificate takes that form, Bone is unable to escape her past history and her social illegitimacy. At the end of the novel, however, Bone must start her life over. Though this choice is forced upon her by Anney's desertion and by her own realization that "the child I had been was gone with the child she [Anney] had been," it still is a time of rebirth, a transformation physically signified by the birth certificate that Anney has somehow managed to obtain for her—one that lacks that accusatory and demeaning word.

The novel abounds with other symbols. The physical hunger that Bone feels when her family does not have enough to eat is a physical reflection of her spiritual hunger. She wants what other people seem to have: the ability to buy trinkets and candy at Woolworth, a grandmother with her hair in braids instead of hanging messily down her back, a house with a white picket fence. Bone notes that she feels a "dizzy desperate hunger edged with hatred and an aching lust to hurt somebody back." She wonders if this is the same hunger that causes her cousin Tommy Lee to steal money from his mother. She also feels this hunger "swell" when they visit Daddy Glen's family, who are lawyers and dentists, who have wives who stay home instead of working. This barrenness is also symbolically reflected in Bone's environment. The houses that Daddy Glen chooses for them are all cheap, dismal imitations of his family's houses. "The lawns were dry, with coarse straggly grass and scattered patches of rocky ground. There were never any trees or bushes … the houses always looked naked and abandoned." As Bone's cousin Temple astutely points out, Daddy Glen is "always finding your houses where it looks like nobody ever really wanted to live."

Point of View
The story is told from the first-person point of view of Bone. Because she relates her tale an undisclosed number of years after it happened, her voice is able to reflect a woman's maturity as well as an education. Through the use of such a narrative voice, Allison is able to home in on the true child's voice and experience, while at the same time reflect on the larger issues raised by the novel, such as poverty, social stigma, and the lure of religion. Allison's narrative includes pieces of information that Bone would not have thought of at the time, particularly a knowledge of her extended family's activities and motivations. The novel places Bone in the position of carefully looking back at the past, attempting to make sense of it in her effort to heal herself. The crucial question Bone tries to answer through her telling of the story is why her mother made the choices that she did, but she is unable to do so, perhaps because she—along with many readers—can never truly understand Anney's decision.

Setting
The story takes place in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1955, which Bone describes as "the most beautiful place in the world." The small-town southern setting has a strong influence on the story, for the Boatwrights and their kin are typical "white trash" as Bone identifies them upon reading Gone with the Wind. They epitomize the stereotypical poor white southerner: undereducated, alcoholic, and prone to violence and loose morals.

The physical setting of the South enhances Bone's story, for the heat is terribly oppressive. Bone describes a landscape filled with burned grass and baked dirt, and porches where the family sits holding large glasses of iced tea and damp hand towels. However, the South is oppressive in other ways. The story takes place at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and African Americans are hardly present, depicting the reality of segregation. The exception is the family with whom Aunt Alma and her children briefly share an apartment house. This momentary glimpse provides a convincing portrait of race relations. Alma's husband is displeased that his children are living side by side with African Americans, and Bone's cousin calls the family "niggers" and is proud that the children seem scared of him. For her part, Bone acknowledges that she has never had a normal conversation with an African American and feels nervous and shy around the children. The incident also shows the economic plight of African Americans. The father is absent from the family, instead working in the North where he can earn much more money.

Language
Many critics have pointed out Allison's deftness at capturing the rhythms of southern speech without resorting to the use of dialect. Her dialogue rings true and reflects the ungrammatical speech of the poorer American. Allison discussed her use of language in an interview she gave to Minnie Bruce Pratt for The Progressive:

When I really started working on the writing of the language, I discovered that there is this conventional way to frame dialect on the page. Now, the language rhythms of the people I am writing about come entirely from gospel music, country music, and the church. But the way it is generally written down [is] barely intelligible and has an aura of stupid about it. And that I had to absolutely refuse, because the people whose voices I am using are very smart people. They are simply uneducated.

Allison creates a distinctive use of language in the novel, one unlike other novels that take place among southerners and rely on the same type of transliteration of words, such as "Ah" for "I." For instance, she uses the word ain't and insists on the repetition of adjectives, as in Uncle Earle's "black black hair" and "black black heart."

Literary Techniques

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Allison uses language and dialect to depict the world of the poor people of the South of this period. In the interview with Pratt, Allison explains some of the reasons for her uses of language and dialect. The speech of poor white working-class people is often thought to be a worthless language. Much of the natural flow of the speech patterns has been lost with the advent of television and a more universal dialect in the United States. Allison says that the "language rhythms of the people I am writing about come entirely from gospel music, country music, and the church ... the people whose voices I am using are very smart people. They are simply uneducated." She goes on to say that she had to "argue for my spelling of two words in particular. One was 'mama.' And one was 'an't'—as in 'I an't having any.'" Word repetition is another use of language that allows the reader into the novel's setting. Phrases such as "black, black hair" show these rhythms.

Allison admits that Bastard out of Carolina is somewhat autobiographical. Her mother, to whom the book is dedicated, gave birth to her at age fifteen. Allison's stepfather sexually abused her from about age seven until she told an aunt, who told her mother. Her mother put a stop to the abuse, but it scarred Allison. She uses storytelling as a way of dealing with her feelings about the past.

Telling the story from the viewpoint of the child, beginning at age six, before she is able to understand or express her feelings about the events she is caught up in, sets up a tension more terrifying than a horror movie. Bone's survival is at stake from the beginning. Allison explains the difficulties of living in poverty, showing how Bone becomes more and more aware of her place—or lack of place—in the community as she grows older. Bone's growing resentment against anyone she perceives to have slighted her or her family is told in a matter-of-fact way that warns of the ease with which any child can be ostracized within a community.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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The fact that Allison is able to overcome the abuse and poverty of her childhood shows that the effects need not be permanent. However, research shows she is the exception rather than the rule. Many children reared in poverty cannot break out because they can see no way to change their lives. Allison gives Bone the drive to learn, to do well in school in spite of her home life, a drive that served Allison so well in her own escape from poverty.

1. Federal and local governments have programs to assist low-income families. Find out what is available in your community.

2. Recognizing that being self-supporting builds self-confidence, suggest ways to improve a person's ability to earn a living.

3. Suggest ways your local schools can help to ensure that all students graduate with the skills needed to make a living.

4. Should the community encourage unwed mothers to complete their education? 5. Discuss alternatives that may be open to an unwed, teenage mother.

6. Look for information about the effects of giving up a baby for adoption on the later life of the mother.

7. How does Allison express her ideas about feminism in Bastard out of Carolina?

8. What does research tell us about the effects of an open adoption on the child? On the birth mother? On the adoptive family?

9. Do research into the causes of death in infants in your area.

10. Compare the job outlook for a woman today with the job outlook for a woman in the 1950s.

Social Concerns

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Abuse and poverty play roles in the development of many children in America, having consequences that affect adulthood. In the semiautobiographical Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison is writing to help heal the wounds from her childhood. Whether the circle of abuse can be broken rather than passed to the next generation is Allison's greatest concern. Efforts to combat abuse and poverty from outside the family have met with limited success. Parents sometimes are unable to provide the safe, loving environment that is the ideal situation in which a child can grow, not because they do not desire to, but because circumstances do not allow them to. Society is not always sympathetic to the plight of the poor or to the unequal treatment of women in the workplace. Neither is society always helpful when child abuse is discovered. As the tendency toward violence in everyday life continues to escalate, it becomes more necessary for parents to recognize and deal with abuse to their children, should it occur.

Ruth Anne Boatwright, nicknamed "Bone" by her family because she was born prematurely after a car accident and was "small as a knucklebone," is the illegitimate daughter of fifteen-year-old Anney, whose choices as a single mother in 1950s South Carolina are limited to finding a husband or living with her mother for the rest of her life. Her only support system consists of her mother and sisters, all of whom are caught in the same circle of poverty. None of the Boatwright sisters has a husband who is willing to put the responsibility for the family before his desires.

The Boatwright brothers are known for their hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hardliving ways. Having been in jail is a source of pride rather than shame. Writing in The Nation, Randall Kenan describes the Boatwright men as "the stereotype of poor white trash: liquored-up, malevolent, unemployed, undereducated, country-music-listening, oversexed, foul-tempered men" and their women as "long-suffering, quickly aging, overly fertile, too-young-marrying, hard-headed women." All these things are true. For Anney this type of family member is normal.

The men are not good husbands and fathers, or good providers, being unable to sustain the effort. They are dedicated to having fun. When they are moved to protect family members, the action taken is violent. Of these brothers, Uncle Earle figures most prominently.

Anney marries Glen, who was abused and continues to be abused by his father. As "Daddy Glen" he fails at one job after another, unable to support the family, and begins to take out his anger and frustration on Bone. Once he begins to use Bone as that outlet, he cannot stop, and Bone suffers from the physical and mental hunger and humiliation poverty brings, coupled with the beatings from her stepfather. He tries to keep the abuse secret, and when Anney finds out he is beating Bone, she is paralyzed by indecision, willing to believe Glen's explanation for his discipline. Eventually Aunt Raylene discovers that Daddy Glen is abusing Bone and tells the brothers. They will not tolerate the abuse, inflicting a beating on Glen, thinking he will take this as a warning and leave Bone alone.

That Bone is able to continue to do well in school is her first step toward breaking the pattern of abuse that is handed down to her. College and the outside world give Allison a framework to deal with her childhood.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1950s: A 1957 study determines that around forty million Americans live near or below the poverty line of $3,000 for a family four.

    Today: In 1995, 36.4 million Americans, which includes 27.5 million families, live in poverty. The average income cut-off level for a family of four at the poverty level is $15,569.

  • 1950s: Throughout the decade, an average of sixty-three percent of the U.S. population considers themselves to be church members. In 1958, 109 million Americans have an official religious affiliation.

    Today: In 1998, seventy percent of Americans claim to be members of a church or synagogue. Forty percent have attended a church or synagogue within the last week.

  • 1950s: By the end of the decade, thirty-nine percent of all women with children ages six to seventeen work for wages outside the home. Around 6.6 million women with children ages seventeen and under work outside of the home.

    Today: In the early part of the decade, seventy-one percent of married women hold jobs outside the home. Around 18.2 million women with children ages seventeen and under work outside of the home.

  • 1950s: The birthrate in 1957 is 4.3 million, or 25.3 births per 1,000 Americans.

    Today: The birthrate in 1997 is 3.8 million, or 14.6 births per 1,000 Americans.

  • 1950s: The average age for the first marriage for women is twenty. The average age for men is almost twenty-three.

    Today: The average age for the first marriage for women is twenty-four. The average age for men is almost twenty-six.

  • 1950s: By the end of the decade, 125 million Americans live in urban areas and 54 million Americans live in rural areas. Throughout the decade, rural population drops by seventeen percent with an average of 1.4 million rural dwellers leaving each year for higher-paying jobs in cities.

    Today: Today, the majority of Americans—over seventy-five percent—live in urban areas.

Literary Precedents

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Hailed by George Garrett in the New York Times Book Review as "a major new talent," Allison's Bastard out of Carolina can be compared to the work of several authors. In Contemporary Literature, Horvitz compares it to Gayl Jones's Corregidora. Horvitz focuses on "the complex, commingled relationships between sexual trauma, its repression, and its potential healing through narration/narrative" present in both texts. Comparing Bone and Ursa, saying that both are in slavery, Horvitz continues, "both novels emphasize the crucial need to understand and integrate one's past, especially when that story derives from and is embedded in sexual/violent trauma."

According to Patricia Gulian in Library Journal, the character Sister in Janice Daugharty's Like a Sister is reminiscent of Bone, since both are living in poverty, are abused and abandoned, and feel the discomfort of being an outsider. Bone will escape but not Sister.

Adaptations

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Aired on Showtime on December 15, 1996, Anjelica Huston's adaptation of Bastard out of Carolina is a "blunt, at times shockingly graphic approach" to the book, says Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly. Originally made for TNT, Ted Turner refused to air the film, calling it "too disturbing." Starring eleven-year-old Jena Malone as Ruth Anne, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Anney, and Ron Eldard as Daddy Glen, the film focuses on Ruth Anne's "misery and her growing resolve to fight back." Having to watch the violence makes the viewer ashamed, but it is the creation of "a sense of blood ties and love, even among family members as beaten down as the Boatwrights" that is Huston's accomplishment with the film, Schwarzbaum says.

Dorothy Allison reads on a sound recording produced in 1993. Consisting of two cassettes, the audio version is 180 minutes in all. Publishers Weekly calls the reading "persuasive in its eerie emotional tenor," adding that Allison's voice conveys the "ominous flat stillness of a calm before a storm."

Media Adaptations

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  • An audiotape of Bastard Out of Carolina, read by Allison, was published by Penguin Highbridge Audio in 1993.
  • Angelica Houston directed the movie version of Bastard Out of Carolina from a screenplay written by Anne Meredith. Jennifer Jason Leigh played the role of Anney, and Jena Malone played Bone.

Bibliography

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Allen, Kimberly G. Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Library Journal 117 (March 1, 1992): 116. Sees the focus of the story as the Boatwrights, “a proud and closeknit clan.” Praises Allison for her “rich sense of family.” Allen also mentions the author’s accuracy and sensitivity in revealing the feelings of a sexually abused child.

Boyd, Blanche McCrary. “Dorothy Allison, Crossover Blues.” The Nation 257 (July 5, 1993): 20-21. Allison discusses her work, particularly Bastard Out of Carolina, a novel that has been categorized as a “crossover” book, or one that was written by a lesbian author and has been well-received by the mainstream public.

Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood. “ Born on the Wrong Side of the Porch’: Violating Traditions in Bastard Out of Carolina.Southern Folklore 55 (Fall, 1998): 133-144. Donlon explores the symbolism of the porch in Allison’s book, perceiving it as a space that defines cultural traditions and norms. She discusses the various porches where Bone experiences significant events in her life.

Fullbrook, Kate. Free Women: Ethics and Aesthetics in Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. The discussion of morality in the work of a number of women novelists provides an interesting background from which to consider Allison’s critique of the family, class, and hypocrisy.

Garrett, George. “No Wonder People Got Crazy as They Grew Up.” The New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1992, 3. A highly favorable review by a critic who is himself a much-admired Southern writer. Points to the skill with which Allison incorporates so many details, episodes, and stories into a unified whole. She avoids the dangers of “cuteness” inherent in a Southern setting as well as the sentimentalizing or sociologizing that often tempt those writing about the poor. Perhaps her most impressive achievement is in the use of language, which rings true and yet is as lyrical as a gospel song.

Greiner, Donald J. Women Without Men: Female Bonding and the American Novel of the 1980s. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A feminist examination of the complexities of female relationships. Although the book does not include a discussion of Allison, it looks at the work of her contemporaries. The analysis of Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here (1987) is especially interesting as it draws attention to the impact of an adolescent, female narrator.

Harris, Gale. “Ashamed and Glorified.” Belles Lettres 8 (Spring, 1993): 4-6. Assesses the novel as an “American classic.” One of the major themes of the work is pride, which in excess, as often with the Boatwright men, can be destructive, but which sometimes, as in the case of Bone, is all that enables one to endure. Another theme is human vulnerability, as seen in the universal need for love. Praises Allison’s descriptive prose, her “emotional intensity and honesty,” and her “complex and compassionate” characterization.

Hawthorne, Mary. “Born of Ignorance.” The Times Literary Supplement, August 14, 1992, 18. Sees the main subjects of the novel as the “complexity of cruelty,” the product of poverty, “social inequity,” and “the psychosis of the family.” The defects of Bastard Out of Carolina include a lack of unity, excessive “wisecracking bonhomie” on the part of the Boatwrights, and sometimes, particularly in the case of Glen, unconvincing characterization. Finds the book, however, vivid, compelling, and emotionally honest.

Horvitz, Deborah. “ Sadism Demands a Story’: Oedipus, Feminism, and Sexuality in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” Contemporary Literature 39 (Summer, 1998): 238-261. Horvitz draws parallels between Jones’s and Allison’s novels, focusing on the trauma enacted on the female body in both books, and emphasizing the need to move into the future without repressing the memory of the sadism of the past.

Irving, Katrina. “ Writing It Down So That It Would Be Real’: Narrative Strategies in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” College Literature 25 (Spring, 1998): 94-107. Discusses Allison’s strategy of disavowal in her portrayal of poor Southern characters in her novel. Irving maintains that such a strategy is in keeping with Allison’s self-designation as an iconoclast, influenced by her desire to assert her true sexuality.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, February 1, 1992, p. 126.

Lambda Book Report. III, May, 1992, p. 42.

Library Journal. CXVII, March 1, 1992, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 16, 1992, p. 6.

McDonald, Kathlene. “Talking Trash, Talking Back: Resistance to Stereotypes in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.Women’s Studies Quarterly 26 (Spring-Summer, 1998): 15. McDonald sees Allison’s novel as a presentation of “an insider’s perception of so-called white trash experiences which help those on the outside understand the reality and diversity of those experiences.” McDonald evaluates Allison’s work from a pedagogical point of view.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, July 5, 1992, p. 3.

Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, ed. Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. This collection of essays on Southern women writers shows the breadth of their concerns. The checklist of sources at the end provides a bibliography of works by Allison’s contemporaries.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, January 27, 1992, p. 88.

San Francisco Chronicle. April 19, 1992, p. REV7.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 14, 1992, p. 18.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 3, 1992, p. 11.

Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Important comparative themes include discussions of Southern daughters, rural life, and the struggle for freedom.

Women’s Review of Books. IX, July, 1992, p. 15.

Young, Elizabeth. “Trash Tales.” New Statesman 234 (January 8, 1993): 41-42. Allison’s aim is to portray accurately a social class “that has been neglected and misunderstood by other novelists.” Because of her “force and accuracy,” she is more successful than such notable writers as Bobbie Ann Mason and Carolyn Chute. Young also admires her clean style, which, though avoiding dialect, has captured the “rhythms of Southern speech.”

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Aletti, Vince. Review of Bastard Out of Carolina. In Voice Literary Supplement, June 1992, p. 7.

Garrett, George. "No Wonder People Got Crazy as They Grew Up." In New York Times, July 5, 1992, p. 3.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books, 1992.

Hollibaugh, Amber. Review of Bastard Out of Carolina. In Women's Review of Books, July 1992, p. 15.

Horvitz, Deborah. "'Sadism Demands a Story': Oedipus Feminism and Sexuality in Gayl Jones's 'Corregidora' and Dorothy Allison's 'Bastard Out of Carolina.'" In Contemporary Literature, Volume 39, No. 2, Summer 1998, p. 238.

Jetter, Alexis. Interview with Allison. In New York Times Magazine, December 17, 1995, p. 54.

Karpen, Lynn. Interview with Allison. In New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1994, p. 54.

Kenan, Randall. Review of Bastard Out of Carolina. In The Nation, December 28, 1992, p. 815.

Meem, Deborah. "Dorothy Allison: Overview." In Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton. St. James Press, 1996.

Review of Bastard Out of Carolina. In Publishers Weekly, January 27, 1992, p. 88.

Young, Elizabeth. Review of Bastard Out of Carolina. In New Statesman and Society, January 8, 1993, p. 41.

For Further Study
Jetter, Alexis. "The Roseanne of Literature." In New York Times Magazine, December 17, 1995, p. 54. The author profiles Dorothy Allison's background.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. Interview with Dorothy Allison. In The Progressive, July 1995, p. 30. The author conducts an in-depth interview with Allison, focusing on her career and educational background and her views on politics and feminism.

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