Bastard Out of Carolina
by Dorothy Allison
Review by C.J. Sellers
Bastard Out of Carolina is a semi-autobiographical literary novel written by Dorothy Allison, published in 1992 by Plume books. Its themes intersect complex moral, economic, and social problems affecting “Bone” Boatwright’s life as a girl growing up in Greenville County, South Carolina during the 1950’s and 60’s. Bone comes into the world (no bigger than a knuckle-bone) in the midst of a traffic accident, born to a teen mother named Anney Boatwright. Anney’s still in a coma during Bone’s birth and never comes to in time to lie and say she was married to the father, as she’d intended to. And, since the father was chased off by Anney’s family for messing with their underage daughter, he can’t be in the picture, even if he wanted to. So, the infant is officially labeled a bastard by South Carolina, and the birth certificate states this fact clearly, stamped in red. This doesn’t sit right with young Anney Boatwright, whose name (boat + right) should clue the reader in to her motivation. The Boatwright clan has already suffered plenty of ignominy for their tendency to get up to drinking and fighting, so they’ve collectively been pigeon-holed as “trash” by many in the community, and now this. Anney is determined that her daughter won’t go through life with the added shame of that stamp on her birth certificate. The longer struggle that Anney faces is in trying to get her life back on course, despite being a teen single mother. She manages this for a while, but things that were right (getting a job waiting tables, and marrying a loving man) take an unexpected wrong turn (he dies in a crash), and in her efforts to do the right thing, she is often led astray: too often absent when she should be present, or too compassionate when she should be firm. She means well, but she’s the blind leading the blind, and her daughter, Bone bears the consequences for Anney’s poor choices, the worst of which come after Anney meets and falls for husband #2, Glen Waddell.
Everything I tell you in this review should not spoil reading this book, for you’ll get the gist within the first few chapters when things are already going off the tracks for Bone and her family. Why should you read a story about domestic horror? Because it’s as close to true as fiction can get. And as Dorothy Allison, herself, says in an interview, so you’ll understand. Family is supposed to be a safe, loving environment in which to share the passing of years and raise children. Yet, cringe-inducing things happen within a family in this book — things that if you knew they were happening to some real child you knew of, even if you didn’t know them personally or well, you may be so appalled that you’d be tempted to maim or kill the perpetrator, either to punish or to ensure it never happens again. Bone fantasizes about a savior as she’s forced to endure abuse from Daddy Glen. But he’s too big and strong, and the damage has been done. And after the shock and indignation wears off, her mother loves him in spite of his temper and abuse. This is the worst betrayal of all! Even one episode of extreme violence or molestation in a child’s life will alter its course forever, because the child will know from then out certain things a child should never imagine so clearly until they’re a mature adult. And that knowledge separates these children from their peers. It turns them toward skepticism and realism. It makes them resentful. It’s a secret that turns them hard like bone.
Although in style this story falls into the literary genre with some noteworthy southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, I was most struck by the suspenseful, ever-present fear and inescapable sense of entrapment, due to Bone’s instinct to be silent in order to protect herself and her family. Things go awry right from the start of the book and get worse, amidst poverty, employment misfires, and unstable residence. And there’s decent, oblivious people in the story, too. As the reader’s waiting for the other shoe to drop and wondering who’s going to figure out what’s going on with who, or what else could go wrong, or who’s going to get hurt next, it’s all made infinitely more complex by the unsolvable problem of love itself, when that love is for someone who is doing poorly, and the ensuing desperation culminates toward a terrible wrong. Love is a problem when it leads someone to choose one loved one over another, or choose individual emotional needs over justice and common decency. Love keeps people in your life that you should be running from. Unlike many stories that fall more squarely into the horror genre, the monstrous acts in this horror tale actually happen, which makes it it worse. Once you get sucked into Bone’s world, the whole slow catastrophe is riveting. In between the episodes of violence and depravity, is a life and an extended family that are well-fleshed-out, believable people, perhaps because some or all are based upon real people. If you could never imagine how good people could get sucked into horrible situations and be unable to do the right thing, this novel will show clearly, how real and deep the quagmire gets. And in the end, the unthinkable happens, but I won’t spoil it. Read this book for its journey and its soul. You won’t forget Bone. You’ll cry for her and you’ll hate Daddy Glen. And so, everything that author, Dorothy Allison must have endured as a child won’t have been for nothing. You and me, we’re her revenge.