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[260] Bastard Out of Carolina – Dorothy Allison

I looked back, saw her face pale and drawn, her eyes red-rimmed, her lips trembling. I wanted to tell her lies, tell her that I had never doubted her, that nothing could make any difference to my love for her, but I couldn’t. I had lost my mama. She was a stranger, and I was so old my insides had turned to dust and stone . . . Maybe it wasn’t a matter of anybody’s fault. [306]

It’s 1955 in South Carolina. From the moment Ruth Anne Boatright, nicknamed Bone, because she has proven to be one tough girl, was born, she bears the stigma of being labeled “whit-trash” and “illegitimate.” Set in the rural south, Bastard Out of Carolina revolves around the Boatwright family. When Bone is born to 15-year-old Anney, she has fought tirelessly to legitimate the child because she doesn’t want to be called trash and mark the child with shame.

Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she’s 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. [3]

When Anney marries Glen Waddell, hoping to make a decent home for her two daughters, Reese and Ruth, the Boatwrights have their reservations. “Yeah. Glen loves Anney. He loves her like a gambler loves a fast racehorse or a desperate man loves whiskey. That kind of love eats a man up.I don’t trust that boy.” [41] Entertaining high hope that Anney will give him a son, her miscarriage makes his downward spiral. Glen makes Bone the scapegoat of his frustrations and develops a contentious relationship with her: she suffers beatings and sexual molestation, bottling them up in order not to spoil her mother’s hard-won happiness. Becoming wrenched and self-loathing, Bone denies the advances, blames herself for not loving Daddy Glen enough, acts out her frustration, and alienates herself from home.

I looked at his hands. No, he never meant to hurt me, not really. I told myself, but more and more those hands seemed to move before he could think . . . My dreams were full of long fingers, hands that reached around doorframes and crept over the edge of mattress . . . [70]

It had been a long time since he had caught me alone, and sometimes I could almost convince myself that he had never held me tight to his hips, never put his hands down inside my clothes. I pretended it had all been a bad dream that would never come back . . . [142]

Allison develops the pathos of Bone’s heavy emotional baggage with a voice so rough that readers feel compassionate about her living in a world of shame. She hides her bruises as if they are evidence of crimes she has committed—all for her mother who, unaware of his abusive behavior, stands by him. In the end she surely pays for what she has allowed herself (and her family) to become. Though the family triangle between Anney, Glen and Bone is the center of Bastard Out of Carolina, the narrative meanders through the story of the Boatwright clan and reflects on the the strength of love and loyalty. But the plot can jump from one story to another without enough transition. It’s a moral vision of those who live in unbridled manner that render their lives trainwrecked. Bastard Out of Carolina is a disturbing book with aching believability and raw language, but I would not be as underwhelmed if people haven’t sung praises with such solicitude.

309 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

After-thought: I think the book is well-written and raw; I understand that a harrowing experience of a young girl always touches readers’ sore spots. Sympathy could sway my rating. But I have decided that this book is really not to call home about.

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20 Responses

  1. I’ve had this on my shelves for a long time–no doubt bought when it was at its height of popularity. So much time has passed now, though, that I’m not sure I have any preconceived ideas about it. I’d still like to read it, but I think its a book you need to be in the right mood for!

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one. I do think that sometimes we may be so sympathetic to the victim in the story that it plays havoc with our emotions!

    • It certainly does trigger a lot of emotions in me but I just can’t see why this book is so popular and that people, critics and readers alike, sing praises of it.

  3. I like to have my emotions yanked around a little…makes me feel alive. But too much muck and heartbreak can bring me down. I understand what you are saying about the sympathy vote. But there has to be more to it, right?

  4. I have seen a lot of recommendations for this book and I actually own it, but every time I read what it is about it just sounds a bit too much for me

  5. I’ve had the exact response to hearing about this book that Caite has – it just sounds like more misery than I can take!

  6. I started this recently, still have it checked out from thre library, and while I find it interesting, I just don’t go back to it very often. Maybe I just have too many books going at one time, but this one just isn’t drawing me back.

  7. Geez that’s a lot of “justs” – I should have edited. Eek.

  8. I read this book last year and it was one of the best reads I’d had in quite some time. Such a well written and engaging book. It was definitely raw and disturbing, which I think is key when an author is trying to shake the reader up a bit. Plus the subject matter is so realistic that how could it not be written in any other way. Definitely a book that I am glad to have read because it made an impression on me,but not a book that I would like to re-read again.

  9. […] [260] Bastard Out of Carolina – Dorothy Allison […]

  10. This one has fallen into the “admired not adored” category in my Reading Memory. You might find that her essays (in Skin: Thoughts on S*x, Class and Literature) add something to the reading experience; I did find those very interesting (also Two or Three Things I Know for Sure) but I’m partial to writers’ writings on writing…and I know a really lack-lustre reading experience doesn’t make you want to run out for more!

  11. […] on a roll disappointed me this year. I have followed the advice of friends and readers to read Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, which had been recommended to me at least 10 times. Even the clerk at the […]

  12. As a note of correction to your 1st paragraph where you write; “It’s 1955 in South Carolina. From the moment Ruth Anne Boatright, nicknamed Bone, because she has proven to be one tough girl, was born, she bears the stigma of being labeled “whit-trash” and “illegitimate.” Set in the rural south, Bastard Out of Carolina revolves around the Boatwright family. When Bone is born to 15-year-old Anney, she has fought tirelessly to legitimate the child because she doesn’t want to be called trash and mark the child with shame.”
    The correction, to be sure, is that the Boatwrights were already bearing the stigma of being known around town as “white-trash”. This is a label that they couldn’t escape from. Anney’s trials to get the corrected birth certificate for her daughter is quite significant — a 15 year old still having a naive & innocent hope that the label of “white trash” could still be escaped & overcome.

    I come from the Piedmont of the Carolinas & to say that “these people” are “trainwrecked” is quite disrespectful. It’s a shame that you only offer a “skimming” of this novel because a full read would prove that they are not trainwrecked at all, yet a Southern family shown in raw reality, with their love, loyalty and endurance to live underpinning the story. If you read Allison’s other essays, she writes vividly about the affects of the different classes that referred to her and her family as “those people” & “trainwrecked”. It really is a question of class that still persists today.

  13. […] A book that you never want to read again: Bastard Out of Carolina Dorothy Allison […]

  14. I just finished this yesterday and I agree with most everything you said. I wasn’t sure why it was SO PRAISED. I also wasn’t sure if I loved the book, hated the pacing, or the other way around. I’m still unsure about how I feel with this one. I enjoyed your review though.

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