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We're going to get Freudian for a second and ask you what your childhood was like. Was it idyllic? Do you look back on it with a mixture of longing and contempt? Was it hard, scary, confusing? Did you have lots of family? Did you have no family? Did people love you? Did people hurt you? Did people who were supposed to love you hurt you? Or does it not fit into neat, black-and-white categories? Maybe it was sometimes happy, sometimes sad, and sometimes complicated?
Now that we've effectively freaked you out, let's talk about a novel that takes a good, hard look at what it means to be a child trying to make sense of a tumultuous, perplexing, and often dark world: Bastard Out of Carolina, written in 1992 by Dorothy Allison about her experiences growing up. The book is a semi-autobiographical account of "Bone" Boatwright, a girl growing up in Greenville County, South Carolina in the 1950's and 60's, born fatherless to fifteen-year-old Anney Boatwright, sexually and physically abused by her step-father Glen, and surrounded by a big loving extended family who get called "trash" for their poverty and their penchant for drinking and fighting.
It has all the makings of a Lifetime original movie... and, in fact, it was made into one in 1996.
We know from the very beginning that this book is going to be no cakewalk. Talk about a title that packs a punch. Who exactly is this "bastard"? Well, folks, it's our protagonist, Bone. She is a bastard in the most literal sense of the word (she doesn't know who her father is), but even so, the word "bastard" isn't exactly politically correct. Even the term "illegitimate" is now pretty outdated. So we know from the outset that our main character comes from a non-traditional family. So what? Well, Bone's bastard-ness is going to haunt the narrative. If you think illegitimacy is a heavy topic, buckle up, because things are about to get a whole lot heavier.
Get ready for lots of sitting on porches, drinking iced tea, and listening to country music on scratchy records while confronting some pretty heavy issues. The story follows Bone from birth to age thirteen, and it centers on a few important topics: Bone's relationship with her mother, Glen's abuse of Bone, and Anney's attempts deals with this abuse.
The big conflict in the novel comes from Bone trying to understand how her mother can both love her daughter and stay with her daughter's abuser. Fortunately, Bone has a lot of wise family members who give her un-sugar-coated, straight-up life lessons to help guide her.
Be forewarned that this is not the happiest novel you will ever read. The Boatwrights lead hard lives filled with poverty, violence, and heartbreak—and Bone and Anney both have their share of all three. But part of what makes Bastard Out of Carolina a great novel is that it revels in the fact that life is not always clear cut. Maybe it's easier to believe that it is, and to judge people on that basis, but as the novel shows, judging people will get you nowhere if you don't understand them.
Sure, we could just read Bastard Out of Carolina as a lurid exposé on child abuse and incest, kind of like Law and Order: SVU, but believe you us, it is much more than that.
As always, there are those out there who would argue that the content of this book is too mature for students to read. Bastard Out of Carolina has definitely seen its share of censorship, which is really just another indication that you should read it. This book isn't about shock value at all. Dorothy Allison wrote about her own experiences, and she wanted the book to be an honest account of something that most people don't want to acknowledge exists.
The book doesn't just tackle child abuse. It also deals with poverty, classism, sexism, and racism. All of those bad -isms, together at last.
Now, we hear what you're saying. "I already know all that stuff is bad, Shmoop. I don't need a book to tell me so."
Fair enough—but Bastard Out of Carolina isn't here to just tell you this stuff is bad. It's here to get you to think about these issues in new ways, to think about how they're all related, and to recognize the different forms they take. It's not enough to just know this stuff is bad. We need to understand it, in all its messy complexity, if we ever want it to stop.
This is a book all about other people's judgments, and it's a book about judging people for who you think they are. It's pretty impossible not to find something in this book that you can relate to.
Still not convinced? Take a look at this two-minute clip of Allison about the unexpected impact her novel has had.
Are you crying? Get used to it, because you're about to cry a whole lot more as you read this book. It'll be so worth it though, because good literature does more than tell a story. Good literature gives you new insight. It makes you relate to it in ways you didn't expect. Sometimes, it even makes you a better person.
We dare you to come away from Bastard Out of Carolina unchanged.
RAINN: Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network
There's tons of information here about types of sexual violence, statistics, hotlines, information about recovery for victims and loved ones, and tons of other resources.
Yes, Greenville County is a real place.
It even has a website.
Bastard Out of Carolina (1996)
Directed by Angelica Houston, winner of an Emmy, and totally 90's.
A Question of Class
Get some insight on Dorothy Allison by reading her essay on her life and how she came to terms with her class and her lesbianism.
On the Twentieth Anniversary of Bastard Out of Carolina
Dorothy Allison inspires you to write, because she hasn't inspired you enough already.
Author Views: Dorothy Allison
Dorothy Allison talks about Bastard Out of Carolina and makes you cry in two minutes.
Dorothy Allison reads an excerpt from Bastard Out of Carolina
Be forewarned, it's kind of R-rated at the beginning. The reading starts at 1:20.
"Pistol Packin' Mama"—Al Dexter and his Troopers (1943)
Ruth and Bone belt this song like there is no tomorrow.
"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels"—Patsy Cline
Patsy Cline doing her thing. This is Anney's favorite.
Young Dorothy Allison looking wicked cool on a motorcycle
Of course she grew up to be even more awesome.
Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jena Malone as Anney and Bone in the 1996 film adaptation
No, films were not still black and white in 1996.