Content warning: child abuse.
My bestie lent me this book ages ago, and knowing that I was travelling to America, I thought I would take the opportunity to add it to my five weeks of American literature. Again, I completely forgot to take any photos of the book while actually in America, but I was reading it while I was in south California, so have a photo of a cactus to set the mood.
“Bastard out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison is a novel about a young girl called Ruth Anne Boatwright, known to everyone as Bone, who is born to an unmarried teenage mother Anney in South Carolina. Due to South Carolina’s laws about legitimacy, Bone’s birth certificate is stamped with the word ‘bastard’, despite her mother’s multiple attempts to change it. When Bone is still small, mother marries, has another daughter and is widowed in short order – now a single mother with two small girls. Despite the circumstances of her birth, and becoming increasingly aware of her ‘white trash’ status in the community, Bone cherishes her Boatwright family, including her grandmother, aunts, wild uncles and cousins. Devastated by the loss of her husband, Anney eventually agrees to marry her long-time suitor Glen who promises a life of financial stability. However, Glen’s quick temper and inferiority complex result in him losing job after job, and the family constantly moving home. Glen begins to lash out at Bone and as she gets older, the physical (and later sexual) abuse against her escalates.
This was a book that was both easy and hard to read. Allison is a beautiful writer and captures Bone’s internal voice perfectly. I read the 20th anniversary edition of this novel which includes Allison’s thoughts about the impact her story has had on survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse, especially as a survivor herself, and some of the history of the book being banned in schools. Although Bone is a fictional character, Allison was able to draw on lived experience to explore the same issues of abuse, poverty, class, faith, gender roles and the body.
Allison’s biggest strength is in her ability to translate emotions onto the page. The hate that Bone begins to feel both for herself and her tormentor is absolutely visceral. The depiction of Bone’s fraught friendship with Shannon who suffers from albinism. The increasing distance and betrayal from Anney. Bone’s relationships with her aunties who have their own struggles with sexuality and health.The brutality of Daddy Glen’s abuse. Allison captures them all. This isn’t a particularly long book, but Allison has managed to fill it with so much humanity that it is impossible to walk away unmoved or unscathed.
An excellently crafted but heart-rending story.