by Jessica LeAnne Jones
Nearly two centuries ago, a niche genre emerged from the post-bellum South called Southern Gothic. Writers like Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee warped stereotypes of the South, setting a twisted story of redneck eccentricity against a lush backdrop of Southern landscape. Continuing with that tradition is Dorothy Allison with her semi-autobiographical novel Bastard out of Carolina. It is set in 1950’s South Carolina and gives an honest, stark look at growing up as a child in a “Southern white trash” family.
Faced with raising two daughters alone, teenage mother Anney tries to find a suitable husband and father for her two girls, the oldest being Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright. When Anney’s third pregnancy comes along, she settles for marrying the new child’s father, the moon-struck Glen Waddell. Yet things aren’t happy with the new family. Within months of being a new stepfather, Glen rapes Bone on the night Anney goes into labor with his son. Glen always seems to have it out for Bone from that moment. Unfortunately, Anney wants to believe in their new family so much that she refuses to acknowledge that Bone is living in a toxic and dangerous environment.
Luckily, most families in rural South Carolina are surrounded by extended relatives. Bone’s aunts and uncles pick up the role of mother and father due to the growing tension between Bone and Glen. Bone is fortunate in this regard. From living with her mother, taking care of a dying aunt, and working for a financially independent aunt, Bone learns the strength is something every woman possesses, regardless of weak they may look to others.
Allison forms a vivid setting in Bastard out of Carolina. She uses local color to paint the rural landscape of Greenville, South Carolina during the 1950’s. Because the Boatwrights are “trashy,” their homes are flimsy white rental houses surrounded by barren clay yards. Allison then contrasts Bone’s family environment with Glen’s rich family; the Waddells’ green lawns and pleasant homes show the stark difference in both income and class level of people that inhabit the town. Even how people interact with Bone and the rest of the Boatwrights creates an ecosystem based on privilege and poverty. And as a girl who lived in a small Southern town for her entire childhood, the descriptions of these social cues are familiar and accurate.
My favorite part of Bastard out of Carolina, though, is how Allison tells the story. This isn’t a straight-forward novel with your typical story arch. Instead, Allison follows in the steps of Faulkner to mimic the oral tradition of Southern writing. She forms the chapters with less of a written story in mind and instead focuses on Bone’s voice and tone. Since Bone is around the age of ten for the majority of the novel, Allison’s narration embodies the loose, roundabout jargon of a troubled young girl. The disjointed narration ties together her fragmented childhood.
While the novel doesn’t possess the other-worldly grotesque elements that are the most recognizable part of Southern Gothic literature, Allison uses amazing diction, setting, and local color to infuse her story with features unique to the South. And being autobiographical in nature, Allison’s story is dark and brutal, an embodiment of the beaten honesty that sexual abuse victims often use when describing their experiences. Bastard out of Carolina is a difficult book to read and should be preceded with a trigger warning to anyone who can’t handle descriptions of graphic physical and sexual abuse. But if readers are able to make it past a small handful of painful scenes, they will be rewarded with a story about a vivacious, smart young girl who refuses to let her stepfather’s actions define her.