Penguin Books, 1992, 336 pages
Greenville County, South Carolina, is a wild, lush place that is home to the Boatwright family - a tight-knit clan of rough-hewn, hard- drinking men who shoot up each other's trucks, and indomitable women who get married young and age too quickly. At the heart of this story is Ruth Anne Boatwright, known simply as Bone, a bastard child who observes the world around her with a mercilessly keen perspective. When her stepfather, Daddy Glen, "cold as death, mean as a snake", becomes increasingly more vicious toward her, Bone finds herself caught in a family triangle that tests the loyalty of her mother, Anney - and leads to a final, harrowing encounter from which there can be no turning back.
Dorothy Allison's modern classic has aroused controversy and made "banned books" lists because of its unsparing depiction of a young girl physically and sexually abused by her stepfather. In an afterword, the author talks about how she once attended a school board meeting with a young teacher who shortly thereafter lost her job and left the profession because she'd assigned Bastard Out of Carolina in class.
It's probably not a book appropriate for all kids - the "sex" is not described explicitly, but this book pulls no punches.
He pinned me between his hip and the sink, lifting me slightly and bending me over. I reached out and caught hold of the porcelain, trying not to grab at him, not to touch him. No. No. No. He was raging, spitting, the blows hitting the wall as often as they hit me. Beyond the door, Mama was screaming. Daddy Glen was grunting. I hate him. I hated him. The belt went up and came down. Fire along my thighs. Pain. I would not scream. I would not, would not, would not scream.
Twelve-year-old Ruth Anne "Bone" is the first-person narrator of her story. Bone's course in life is pretty much set in the beginning when an officious clerk insists on stamping "illegitimate" on her birth certificate.
Once I was born, her hopes had turned and I had climbed up her life like a flower reaching for the sun.
Her mother was a pretty teenager who had two children quickly to a father who disappeared, quickly married another young man who quickly died in a car accident, and then quickly married yet another man, "Daddy Glen," a charming, handsome fellow who promised her the world and swore he'd love her two girls like his own.
He loves her like a gambler loves a fast racehorse or a desperate man loves whiskey. That kind of love eats a man up.
The world of the Boatwright clan is the world of "poor white trash," and the class differences in 1950s South Carolina are glaringly illuminated. The Boatwrights and their kin are perceived as only slightly more human than n*****s (the word isn't used a lot in the book, but it is used) - a distinction they cling to, though Bone herself and even her hard-drinking, violent uncles seem to bear no particularly racial animosity. It's just the way it is.
"Daddy Glen" becomes increasingly violent, increasingly bitter, as he loses one job after another, always blaming his troubles on everyone but himself. He's a vile man, even before he starts molesting Bone, but he's not the only villain in this story. Because Bone's mother sees at least some of the abuse, and clearly is turning her eyes away from the rest of it. Does she try to protect Bone? Yes, in the moments of Glen's rages, she will interpose herself between them - sometimes. But other times, she huddles outside the bathroom door as he is belting strips of flesh off of her and weeps.
And she goes back to him.
After one particularly brutal beating, in which Bone's aunts and uncles find out how badly she was hurt, and proceed to kick the shit out of her stepfather, Bone's mother weeps and wails... and then goes back to him.
And after the the most brutal confrontation of all, in which "Daddy Glen" loses the last vestiges of restraint and is unmasked to everyone as a monster in full... she goes back to him.
This is the harshest lesson Bone learns - not that sometimes the people who are supposed to take care of you will harm you, but that sometimes the people who love you will allow you to be harmed.
My heart broke all over again. I wanted my life back, my mama, but I knew I would never have that. The child I had been was gone with the child she had been. We were new people, and we didn't know each other anymore. I shook my head desperately.
Ruth Anne narrates her story in realistic but sometimes poetic sentences, and the writing style is characteristic of the best Southern literature. This is not a heartwarming book and I can see why it upsets people, and also why the author says so many girls have thanked her for writing it.
Bastard Out of Carolina (1996)
This movie is actually not available on Netflix! Nor at any of my local libraries. I had to order a copy of dubious Korean manufacture from eBay to see it...
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Ruth Anne's mother. Despite originally being made for Lifetime, this was actually a very good movie, well acted, and as brutal and harrowing as the novel. If you read the book, you should definitely see the movie, and if you see the movie, you'll find the book adds even more complexity and detail to these complicated, difficult characters.
My complete list of book reviews.