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Sometimes she just feels like a motherless child.
Oh, wait. That's Boney M. not Bone Boatwright. Bone Boatwright feels like a fatherless child.
Bone is, in a nutshell, a bastard out of Carolina. In a slightly bigger nutshell, she is a girl growing up in Greenville County, South Carolina, in the 1950's and 60's, born illegitimate to her mother Anney, kin to a large, poor, drunk, in-trouble-with-the-law family, physically and sexually abused by her stepfather Glen... and she's our protagonist. She's got a lot to deal with.
Sometimes we really just want to throw Bone a bone. This girl has got it rough from the beginning. The way she deals with the harsh aspects of her life tells us a lot about her character, but so does the fact that she is the one narrating the story—and not only her own story, but also Anney's, and even Glen's. She wants us to know everything about her, and knowing everything about her means knowing everything about her family, as well. That tells us that Bone's story is inseparable from the stories of those around her.
Okay, Bone herself isn't bad, but life sure isn't kind to her. In fact, despite the fact there always seems to be a cousin or two within arm's reach, Bone is a pretty isolated character. She's quiet, which makes her different from the more vocal Boatwright norm. She's poor, so she feels self-conscious around other people. She's always moving to new schools. On top of it all, Anney is always sending her to stay with one of her aunts in order to keep her away from Glen. All of this is compounded by Glen's abuse.
How does all of this effect Bone as a character? One word, folks: rage.
After Bone lands in the hospital, she tells us that she became withdrawn: "I set my teeth and tried to ignore everything but what was right in front of me" (9.3). Sounds like she's biting back some serious rage. After getting in trouble at Woolworth's, Bone describes feeling "a hunger in the back of the throat" (7.38)—and that's the same "hunger" she feels when she visits Glen's family. She feels rage at the fact that she has so little while others have so much. And when she masturbates to the fantasy of being beaten, she says, "I lived in a world of shame […] I knew I was a sick disgusting person" (8.45).
All of that rage starts to turn inward, as if Bone is internalizing all the abuse people are dishing out to her. On top of all her other problems, Bone has to deal with her own self-hatred.
Let's be clear: we don't think that Bone is a hateful person. In fact, we're saying the opposite: Bone has some strong, strong emotions, but instead of expressing them through violence or even (usually) vindictiveness, she finds other outlets: gospel music and religion—which Bone says "worked" on her because it "make[s] you hate and love yourself at the same time" (9.129); through befriending a girl whom no one else likes; and through breaking into Woolworth's. (Okay, that last one is a little vindictive.) In each of these episodes, we can see Bone responding to her abuse in one form or another.
The very, very first thing we are told about Bone is that her real name isn't Bone. That's kind of strange, given how her real name doesn't seem to come up ever again in the novel. Maybe it's because what's written on your birth certificate doesn't always correspond to who you are; as we soon learn, Bone and birth certificates don't see eye to eye.
To recap, Anney is fifteen years old when she has Bone, and the father has been run out of town, never to return. Back in those days, it "mattered" whether or not a person was born out of wedlock—or, at least, it mattered enough for them to stamp it on a person's birth certificate with the big bad word "ILLEGITIMATE." But Bone's illegitimacy is way more than just a stamp on her birth certificate.
First of all, it's a very judgmental stamp, and if Bone never expresses self-consciousness about it, Anney certainly does; it's another way for people to peg the Boatwrights as trash. In other words, the literal stamp on the birth certificate mirrors "the stamp she knew they'd tried to put on her. No-good, lazy, shiftless" (1.10).
Anney does a lot of things to try and keep her girls respectable—finding them a father from a well-to-do family (though we know how that works out), teaching them not to steal, and working all the time to make an honest living. But, no matter how hard she tries "anything to deny what Greenville County wanted to name her," a "soft-talking black-eyed man" has "set a mark on her and hers" (1.10). So, basically, Bone is "officially" marked as trash from the beginning, just because of the circumstances of her birth.
Bone's lack of a father also means that the Boatwrights are the only family she's got. She seems pretty okay with that, but she's also envious of the gentility and conventional old lady-ness of Mrs. Parsons, Reese's maternal grandmother. She also gets embarrassed of the Boatwrights every now and then. "We an't like nobody else in the world" (18.54), she says to Raylene—and that's not an entirely positive assessment.
It's the lack of a father in Bone's life that prompts Anney to go on the search for a husband that leads her to Glen. Now, we're not saying that all stepfathers are evil: Lyle Parsons seemed like a nice choice before he died, and we also know that it takes Anney two years before she trusts Glen enough to let him be a father to her girls.
But the point is that Glen, who is supposed to "fix" Bone's illegitimacy by serving as a father for her, in the end only makes her fatherlessness worse. Even though Bone herself doesn't seem to care too much about her illegitimacy, it's a problem that keeps hurting her.
Everybody the novel keeps talking about who looks like whom, what people looked like when they were younger, what people are going to look like when they get older, where people got their hair or eyes from... it goes on and on.
The Boatwrights are obsessed with looking like each other. We also know that Granny describes the family as "[n]one of us quiet, all of us fighters" (2.38). She even thinks that real Boatwright men get thrown in jail regularly; if you're not in jail, you don't have enough spirit.
Let's just say that the Boatwrights are a tight-knit bunch who have their own standards.
It's rare that you'll find a character anywhere who isn't somehow defined by his or her family (or lack thereof), but in this novel family is huge part of each character's identity. Bone loves her family, but at the same time she hates how trashy they are. After all, if they're trash, then she is, too.
On top of that, Bone doesn't exactly fit the Boatwright paradigm: she's not exactly a regular hell-raiser (though she does have her delinquent moment when she breaks into Woolworth's), and she has black hair that she may have inherited either from her Cherokee ancestor or her absent father.
Bone is dealing with some big identity issues when it comes to her family. The Boatwrights are always trying to reassure Bone that she is one of them, but the fact that she needs reassurance at all indicates that she's lacking a little in the Boatwright department. So there are times when she feels like an outsider in her own family, and there are times when she feels too much like a Boatwright (like when she gets her photo in the newspaper after she has been raped).
We'd like to think that Bone's got the best of the Boatwright genes, and the novel seems to concur. Just take a look at the last lines of the novel: "I was who I was going to be, someone like her, like Mama, a Boatwright woman" (22.60). Wait, didn't Anney just abandon Bone for an abusive man? Why would Bone want to be like Anney, especially at a moment like this? Bone is Boatwright all right, but what are the characteristics that make her so?
Well, the Boatwright women (and it's important that she says "woman"—see the "Gender" section in "Themes" to learn more) get thrown under the bus a lot in life, but they grit their teeth and handle it. If they are anything, they are tough survivors. Anney may have got pregnant when she was fourteen, but Bone has been molested, beaten, and raped by the time she is thirteen. Both of them have to deal with some serious issues at a very young age; Bone's going to need some serious Boatwright moxie if she is going to pull through this.
In that light, it makes a lot of sense that at the end of the novel she channels the Boatwrights to come to a conclusion about her identity and about the kind of person she wants to be.