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Amber Paulen

Bastard Out of Carolina - Dorothy Allison

Dorothy Allison

Bastard Out of Carolina

10 June 2011


The first words that come to mind when recalling Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina are “raw” and “tough.” The rawness isn’t the same as Henry Miller’s, which seems to come solely out of his use of language, his creation of place, but is instead imbedded deep within the story itself, the dialogue, the characters, the place, Greenville, South Carolina. Bastard Out of Carolina glints with the extra sharpness that signifies that the author dug as deep into the grit as she could get.

The strongest grit in Bastard Out of Carolina is the sexual and physical abuse of a young girl nicknamed Bone, the first-person narrator and semi-autobiographical sketch of the author herself. How Allison so believably and so truthfully evoked the character of her step-daddy Glen is one of the mysteries I consign to good literature. To not hate the man, to understand why Bone’s mama still loves him, yet to sink down into his darkness left me confounded as I finished the book.

But Bastard Out of Carolina is more than the story of abuse. It is also a novel about poverty and women. Bone is surrounded by women, her aunts, granny and mama and Shannon Pearl, the ugly albino girl; she is surrounded by the domain of women: the raising of children and other domesticities. Whether it’s the poverty that makes the kids or the kids that make the poverty, the two are inescapable. Bone’s mama Anney, had her illegitimate, at the age of fifteen. As a young mother, Anney was determined that her girls grow up without being labeled as “trash.” But Anney’s destiny seems locked, there’s little she can do but marry and work.

The women that populate this novel are strong and unconquerable. They are determined in ways that seem crazy because if they weren’t, they would go crazy, like Aunt Alma who has a nervous breakdown. As a reader, I saw the fine line to insanity lingering behind whatever it was that continued to hold those Boatwright women upright. Like Aunt Raylene says in the end:

We do terrible things to the ones we love sometimes. We can’t explain it. We can’t excuse it. It eats us up, but we do them just the same.

And more than abuse, poverty and women, Bastard Out of Carolina is about female sexuality and anger. At first I was shocked when I realized the relationship between abuse, anger and sexuality in Bone; the anger at Daddy Glen burned her up and masturbation was a release. The sexual attractiveness of the hook found at the bottom of the river is in its physical power that Bone herself can weild. She takes the hook to bed and slides its chain between her legs, then fastens it with a lock around her hips.

I was locked away and safe. What I really was could not be touched. What I really wanted was not yet imagined. Somewhere far away a child was screaming, but right then, it was not me.

The anger of Bone’s helplessness, directed towards those who conspired to convince her of her worthlessness, was not confined to Daddy Glen but spread to Glen’s wealthy and snobby family, to the Woolworth store and everyone else who called her “trash.” It is an anger that motivates and forces Bone to not allow herself to become who she does not want to be, unlike her mama. The epigraph by James Baldwin comes around full circle and Bone, who is not Dorothy Allison but part of her, must become someone similar, a storyteller, a woman who was not eaten up by anger but a woman who ate with it.



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