Bastard out of Carolina – a tale of shame and anger

Writing Bastard, I had imagined that girl — or rather some girl of thirteen or so who hated herself and her life. I had imagined that, reading Bone’s story, a girl like her would see what I intended — that being made the object of someone else’s contempt and rage did not make you contemptible. I was arguing against the voice that had told me I was a monster — at five, nine, and fifteen. I was arguing for the innocence and worth of that child — I who had never believed in my own innocence.”

This statement is taken from the afterword of Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard out of Carolina, which was published in 1992 and adapted into a film in 1996. It is basically the story of Ruth Anne Boatwright – or Bone, as everyone calls her – starting with the day of her birth and narrating her growing up as part of a notorious “white trash” family in the rural South of the United States.

But Bastard out of Carolina is so much more than just a mere coming of age story. It is, as the reader learns from the afterword, a semi-biographical novel that also tells the story of the abuse Bone suffers at the hands of her stepfather Glen.

Dorothy Allison was born into a poor “white trash” family as the illegitimate child of a 15-year-old waitress. Like the Boatwright clan, Allison’s family had a certain reputation for being uneducated, poor and criminal. Family members could never keep their jobs for long and were therefore unable to pay the bills, often resulting in them being evicted and having to move a lot. There was a history of violence and alcoholism and many of the men in the family were in and out of prison. Just like Bone, Allison was repeatedly abused by her stepfather over the years.

Fair warning: the abuse scenes described in the book are horrific and disturbing and will undoubtedly leave you shaken, at times even speechless. But while violence is one of the main topics and abuse plays an important role both in the plot and in the development of Bone’s character, the conflict with her stepfather is kept more or less in the background. Bone isn’t so much a girl branded by the abuse of her stepfather so much as she is affected by the stigmatization and exclusion of society she is constantly being subjected to. And while the abuse of course changes her and leaves her ashamed, helpless and frustrated, she seems to be way more afflicted by the way she is being treated by society.

Throughout the book, the reader gets a good look at what it means to be “white trash”, to grow up a member of the ill-reputed Boatwright clan in the South, an area which is perceived by most people to be the most backward region in the States. Allison shows how an intelligent little girl can develop dangerously low self-worth and an alarming sense of self-hatred and anger, all of which is fueled by shame – the shame of constantly being looked down upon and being treated like an inferior being, and the shame of the abuse.

Her own experiences combined with her gift of language enable Allison to paint not only an accurate, but also almost relatable picture of a white trash family. By paying close attention to the dialect and idioms of her rural family members, she manages to create round characters rather than stereotypical caricatures. They are all very well characterized and Allison shows both their strengths and weaknesses, their special features and their flaws. Even the abusive stepfather seems to be more than just a monster: he is shown as a deeply troubled man who constantly has to deal with the contempt of his own family and, as a result, takes his anger out on someone more vulnerable.

Even though beautifully written, the book is not an easy read. It is sad, disturbing at times – Allison makes no pretence of graphic descriptions – and altogether just very grim. But then again, the goal here is not to please the reader with well thought out fiction, but to convey a certain message. Both child abuse and social marginalization due to stigmatization are things which constitute an immense threat to a person’s development and which, according to Allison, need to be wiped out of society. And, more importantly, she shows white trash the way she wants others to see it: she manages to paint the picture of a loving and loyal family consisting of people who – even though they might seem rude, uneducated and tend to be violent at times – support and care for each other, no matter what.

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