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 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...
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