If the colloquial voice in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird still echoes relentlessly in your head, I think I have a book to satisfy your needs. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina struck me immediately with its strong narrative voice and undeniable sense of place. It went on to challenge me with some difficult themes, like abuse and the interlocking system of oppression that is poverty. On multiple levels, I was affected by the book more than I expected, and I pined for it within moments of finishing the last page.
Ruth Anne Boatwright, affectionately known as “Bone,” has struggled with her name throughout her life. In South Carolina during the 1950’s, being born to unmarried parents results in being stamped with the ultimate dis: bastard. Her only secure sense of identity comes from her tender relationship with her mother and her mother’s siblings: Aunt Ruth, Aunt Alma, and Uncle Earle, just to name a few. Her Aunt Ruth denounces the title, “bastard child,” insisting “an’t no stamp on her nobody can see” (Allison 3) When Bone is just a toddler, her mother, Anney, marries a loving man named Lyle Persons. It seems like Anney may have found relief from her lifelong poverty, if not from financial burdens, from the shame of being a single mother. Lyle dies tragically in an accident, leaving Anney on her own, broken hearted and aged beyond her years. It seems like it couldn’t get much worse, but in walks Daddy Glen.
Anney’s marriage to Daddy Glen creates a slew of problems for Bone. He abuses her from an early age. He provokes her to act out against him so that he might continue to have an “excuse” to abuse her. His stuck-up family treats Bone and her sister Reese like animals, forcing them to eat outside at family gatherings because they “might track dirt in the house.” Yet there are enough peaceful moments to soften the edges and make this book worth reading. Bone cherishes evenings spent on Granny’s porch listening to stories and drinking sweet tea. Anney’s 2 am breakfast is an oasis in the midst of Bone and Reese’s hunger, featuring homemade biscuits with jelly, fried tomatoes, and eggs that “melt like butter between your teeth and your tongue” (Allison 77-78). While the book is certainly challenging thematically, it reads like a good story would be told, rich with details like “Kool-Aid and cookies after Sunday school” (174). A story of family, classism, and identity, this book is much more than something to read. It is an experience, a way of feeling unfamiliar emotions and understanding characters on a human level. If you’re ready to be transported to that “caught up in a book” state, look no further than Bastard Out of Carolina.