Dorothy Allison Criticism

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Gale Harris (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Ashamed and Glorified,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 4–6.

[In the following review, Harris offers a positive assessment of Bastard Out of Carolina, noting the novel's vivid descriptions and skillful use of vernacular.]

Bastard Out of Carolina is a novel wrung from the heart. Here in Greenville County, South Carolina, members of the extended Boatwright family often subsist on flour-and-water biscuits and move from one ramshackle house to another. Men drown their disappointments in the fleeting sweetness of life in drink and brawls, and women hide their disappointment in their menfolk behind a bitter indulgence of male destructive behavior. People often seem to suffer as much from too much pride and too many second chances as they do from too little pride and too few opportunities to prove themselves. Children are exposed to unspeakable brutality and overwhelming tenderness. For those with roots in this world, Bastard Out of Carolina may add compassion to harsh memories. For those unfamiliar with what it is like to live in such an environment, Bastard Out of Carolina is a guided tour across the tracks. Now available in paperback, the novel deserves every glowing review, every literary honor, and every enthusiastically twisted arm that it has inspired.

The Boatwrights are constantly fighting the label “poor white trash,” the stamp of “no-good, lazy, shiftless.” Their weapons include the loving kinship of family, stubborn pride, and anger. But the family's way of adapting to scorn and poverty has created an environment that injures as much as it supports.

Family is family, but love can't keep people from eating at each other. Mama's pride, Granny's resentment that there should be anything to be considered shameful, my aunts' fears and bitter humor, my uncles' hard-mouthed contempt for anything that could not be handled with a shotgun or a two-by-four—all combined to grow my mama up fast and painfully.

Fierce pride drives Anney Boatwright, Ruth Anne's mother, to fight for the removal of the oversized, red letters ILLEGITIMATE from her daughter's birth certificate. Anney's loneliness and hunger for love compel her to marry Glen, whom she needs “like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth.” But when Anney is faced with conflicting demands on her love, she is unable to shield her daughter from her husband's violent rages.

Determined to protect her mother from recrimination, Ruth Anne (known as Bone by her family) begins a lonely odyssey to discover not only what makes her a Boatwright, and thus capable of survival, but also what makes her special and worthy of love. She becomes passionately absorbed in gospel music because it “makes you hate and love yourself at the same time, makes you ashamed and glorified.” She considers a religious conversion because she wants the way she feels “to mean something and for everything in my life to change because of it.”

But another force building in Bone is an anger that is directed against not only her stepfather, Daddy Glen, but against people who think they are better than the Boatwrights. One manifestation of this anger is an uneasy friendship with another social outcast, the albino Shannon Pearl, who “simply and completely hated everyone who had ever hurt her.”

Although Bone's “funny dose of pride” will not allow her to take anything belonging to more privistantly etch a character or situation. Bone's notorious Uncle Earle “looks like trouble coming in on greased skids.” Another uncle warns that Daddy Glen “could turn like whiskey in a bad barrel.” When Glen does turn on Bone with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, she falls “into shame like a suicide throws herself into a river.”

But a flawless style does not account for the hold that Bastard Out of Carolina has on the heart. The emotional intensity and honesty of this book, along with its complex and compassionate portrayals of even the most villainous character, allow the...

(The entire section is 55,555 words.)