Family is family, but even love can't keep people from eating at each other. (1.46)
How many times have you heard the phrase love conquers all? Well, this statement is all about showing that life does not fit into neat little boxes; it's complicated and ambiguous. Do we ever doubt that the Boatwrights love each other to death? No. But people are who they are, and sometimes they hurt each another. Hm, foreshadowing much?
"Seems like after that we were all grown up and everything was different. It's the way of things. One day you're all family together, fighting and hugging from one moment to the next, and then it's all gone. You're off making your own family, scared of what's coming next, and Lord, things have a way of running faster and faster all the time." (6.100)
It might be the case that what seems straightforward when you are young suddenly becomes complicated when you are older and in the thick of it; at least, that's what Earle seems to be getting at here. In fact, once you have your own family, who you consider your "family" might completely change, and that certainly shakes things up.
"You don't know how long Mama's been dragging around. I been picking up after her and my lazy-assed brothers all my life. People always whining at me what a tragedy it is, mama so sick and likely to die. Uh-huh, right, I say. First it was female trouble and she couldn't lift nothing, then it was bad lungs and nobody supposed to smoke in the house. Never could play the radio or make no noise after sunset so she could get her rest. Never no boyfriends could come by and honk to take me out. No new dresses 'cause her medicine cost so much. Nothing but wheezing and whining and telling me what to do." (10.11)
Compares Deedee's relationship with her mother to Bone's relationship with Anney. Bone is shocked that anyone could even think about their mother the way Deedee thinks about hers. Clearly Deedee has had a very different family experience than Bone has had. Are we supposed to think of Deedee as spoiled and ungrateful, or do we sympathize with her in this passage? That's up for debate. This isn't a matter of who is the better person or who had the better upbringing. The entire novel is about understanding people and understanding where they come from. Same thing here: we can write Deedee off as mean and selfish, or we can try to understand her. The second option would be more in the spirit of the novel.
It must have been like what he felt when he stood around his daddy's house, his head hanging down. (14.21)
Anney thinks that Glen's relationship with his father is an excuse for his behavior. Bone doesn't agree, but she does sympathize with how it feels not to be loved by your family.
I felt mean and powerful and proud of all of us, all the Boatwrights who had ever gone to jail, fought back when they hadn't a chance, and still held on to their pride. (15.26)
Here, it seems like Bone is evoking her own feelings of powerlessness in her relationship with Glen. We can understand family pride, but later (in the next quote, in fact) she will complain to Raylene about the things that the Boatwrights do. What has changed between these two points in the novel?
"Other people don't go beating on each other all the time," I told her. "They don't get falling-down drunk, shoot each other, and then laugh about it. They don't pick up and leave their husbands in the middle of the night and then never explain. They don't move out alone to the edge of town without a husband or children or even a good friend, run around all the time in overalls, and sell junk by the side of the road!" (18.57)
Bone is struggling with what lots of kids struggle with: she wants normalcy, especially in the wake of Glen's abuse. She's getting to that age when all you want is to be like all the other kids, with normal interests, a normal family... normal everything, really. She doesn't realize yet that no one is "normal" in that way. She's still in the process of learning how to assess people—even her own family.
Family they were, obviously related, clearly sisters. When I swallowed loud, they both turned to me with the same gesture and the same expression. (19.21)
There's something both comforting and scary in the fact that sometimes you can't deny who your family is. Alma and Anney lead very different lives on the surface, but they share something that totally connects them. For Bone, it's comforting to have those kinds of unshakeable bonds when other relationships in her life are so precarious.
I was a Boatwright for sure, as ugly as anything. I was a freshly gutted fish, my mouth gaping open above my bandaged shoulder and arm, my neck still streaked dark with blood. Like a Boatwright all right—it wasn't all my blood. (21.293)
Bone is being pretty sardonic here, and it isn't clear whether she sees being a Boatwright as a good thing, a bad thing, or simply something that is inescapable at this moment. Given all that she has been through, we're going to guess that she's maybe more than a little bummed that all the stuff that has happened to her seems to reinforce the idea that her family is trash.
I wanted to tell her lies, tell her that I had never doubted her, that nothing could make any difference to my love for her, but I couldn't. I had lost my mama. She was a stranger, and I was so old my insides had turned to dust and stone. (22.43)
Remember what Earle says about how time has a way of running faster and faster all the time? Well, Bone's experiences have made her more mature, and things have suddenly become way more complicated. The real loss of Anney doesn't happen when Anney leaves; it happens when Anney embraces Glen after he rapes Bone. This seems to break what was supposed to be that unshakeable Boatwright familial bond.
Once I was born, her hopes had turned, and I had climbed up her life like a flower reaching for the sun. Fourteen and terrified, fifteen and a mother, just past twenty-one when she married Glen. Her life had folded into mine. (22.59)
So far, we have been using "family" to mean the entire Boatwright clan, but this quote reminds us that Anney and Bone too are family, and they have the closest bond you can get, at least in terms of biology. What does it mean that Anney's and Bone's lives are folded together, especially in light of Anney leaving?
My aunts treated my uncles like over-grown boys—rambunctious teenagers whose antics were more to be joked at than worried over—and they seemed to think of themselves that way too. They looked young, even Nevil, who'd had his teeth knocked out, while the aunts—Ruth, Raylene, Alma, and even Mama—seemed old, worn-down, and slow, born to mother, nurse, and clean up after men. (2.24)
Men could do anything, and everything they did, no matter how violent or mistaken, was viewed with humor and understanding […] and my aunts would shrug and make sure the children were all right at home. What men did was just what men did. Some days I would grind my teeth, wishing I had been born a boy. (2.25)
As in the previous quote, we get the sense that men don't have to suffer the same consequences as women do. Bone, even at a young age, already feels the weight of this inequality. You might want think about this quote in light of how Bone's biological father is absent in her life, while Anney struggles financially to raise her on her own.
"A man has needs," they'd laugh each time they got together. "So what you suppose a woman has?"
"Men!" one of them would always answer in a giggling roar. (6.110)
"A man has needs" as an excuse for cheating is one of those TV tropes that demands an eye roll. Even in the 1950's, Bone's aunts have a witty retort for it. What they are really laughing at is the idea of some sort of inherent difference between the sexes when it comes to sexual desire. At the same time, though, they seem to put up with the idea that men just can't quite control themselves.
I liked being one of the women with my aunts, liked feeling a part of something nasty and strong and separate from my big rough boy-cousins and the whole world of spitting, growling, overbearing males. (6.110)
Earlier, Bone envied her uncles and boy cousins, but now she has found herself accepted into a kind of community of women. What has changed? And what is it about her aunts that she finds to be "nasty and strong and separate"?
"There's a way he's just a little boy himself, wanting more of your mama than you, wanting to be her baby more than her husband. And that an't so rare, I'll tell you." (9.38)
We've already seen how the women of Bone's family see the men as overgrown boys, but Glen takes it to an extreme by actually seeing Bone as some sort of competition for Anney's love, at least subconsciously. We could get way Freudian with this (and we will—stay tuned), but the question for now is: do you agree or disagree with Dr. Ruth's analysis?
"A man belongs to the woman that feeds him."
"Bullshit," Aunt Alma insisted. "It's the other way around and you know it. It's the woman belongs to the ones she feeds" (10.72-73).
So, it seems like the Boatwright men and the Boatwright women see the same things differently. Who'da thunk, right? Earle sees himself as devoted to the women who care for him, while Alma sees herself as a slave to the ones she cares for. We're getting both perspectives here, and it's interesting to see how they differ: Earle is more focused on how women make him feel, while Alma is more focused on the work she has to do to keep a man. We'd like to point out, by the way, that the sentence that comes right before this one is: "Mama said he's eaten so many of her biscuits by now he was like a child of her own" (10.71). It's yet another in which the men seem like children in this novel.
This body, like my aunts' bodies, was born to be worked to death, used up, and thrown away. (14.7)
Bone is talking about her aunts' bodies, even though her uncles do hard manual labor. Why does the women's work age them more quickly than the men's work? Maybe it's because the women never get a break: they have to work (and worry) 24/7. When it comes down to it, they're the ones keeping their families together.
"You don't think it's cruel the way he takes up with these children? He's never divorced a one of them, never stays with any of them more than a few months. God knows how many babies he's planted." (18.47)
We're getting two different perspectives again here: Bone is on Earle's side, and Raylene is against him. Why do you think this argument is in the novel? Are we meant to take sides on this issue?
"All this time, taking care of him, loving him, giving him children and meals and clean clothes and loving him. Loving him, and him to talk to me that way." (19.33)
Alma's breakdown foreshadows the novel's climax in some ways: in this moment, Alma is confronted with the fact that her husband has been downright cruel to her, despite the fact that she feels like she has spent a good amount of her life taking care of him. Anney, too, is going to face a similar dilemma when she sees Glen raping her daughter. Alma's breakdown shows how crushing a revelation like this can be.
"Anney!" he whined like a little boy. "I don't know what happened. I was just gonna talk to her, darling. I just wanted you to come home, for us all to be together again!" (20.85)
Remember how earlier in the novel, Ruth told Bone that Glen was like a little boy vying for Anney's maternal affection? Well, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let us direct your attention to Exhibit A. Poor lonely Glen just wanted them all to be a family again, and he wanted it so badly that he raped Anney's twelve-year-old daughter to, um, make that happen. It's almost as if he is trying to get Anney to see him as a childlike victim. Guess what? It works. Sheesh.
"Now you look like a Boatwright," she said. "Now you got the look. You're as old as you're ever gonna get, girl. This is the way you'll look till you die." (1.35)
Oh man, if only. Anney is just nineteen when Lyle Parsons dies, so it's pretty unlucky for her that she has already gone through a lifetime of hard times. What effect does it have to have a quote like this at the beginning of the novel, in light of what eventually happens?
I could not have said a word if Great-Great-Granddaddy had been standing there looking back at me with my own black eyes (2.40)
So, Earle seems to think that Bone is bona fide Boatwright material, even if she doesn't enjoy getting into fights that land her in jail. But there is something about her that makes her more like her quiet and gentle great-great-grandfather. What is it about her, then, that makes her Boatwright-y?
"Mama's eyes were soft with old hurt and new hope; Glen's eyes told nothing. The man's image was as flat and empty as a sheet of tin in the sun, throwing back heat and light, but no details—not one clear line of who he really was behind those eyes." (4.13)
Well, now we know what kind of a character Glen is. Or rather, we don't know. Bone's impression of Glen here seems to be one of mistrust. What does it mean that there is "nothing" behind Glen's eyes? Does he have a real personality at all? Does he actually have emotions in the same way that others do? What, if anything, makes him different?
Was it hatred or sorrow that made them look like that, their necks so stiff and their eyes so cold?
Did I look like that?
Would I look like that when I grew up? (9.116-118)
Imagine being constantly confronted with the signs of hard lives. Bone is worried that she might have an early start, and this quote might also suggest that she doesn't see a way out. What really seems to scare Bone, though, is that hatred and sorrow will actually become physically part of her by showing up in her appearance.
Mama was always saying people could see your soul in your face, could see your hatefulness and lack of charity. With all the hatefulness I was trying to hide, it was a wonder I wasn't uglier than a toad in mud season (9.120).
Well, we don't know what a toad in mud season looks like, but we also know that Bone isn't the bad, evil person she sometimes thinks she is. The fact that Bone doesn't look awful may suggest that she's not nearly as bad as she thinks.
Through the steam they both looked older—two worn, tired women repeating old stories to each other and trying not to worry too much about things they couldn't change anyway (12.110)
Okay, we know that people are getting older all the time, but why mention it? Maybe it's because aging happens to quickly and irrevocably for the Boatwrights. Does life ever get easier for the Boatwrights?
I took to watching myself in the mirrors to see what other people saw, to puzzle out just what showed them who I really was. What did Daddy Glen see? Aunt Raylene? Uncle Earle? (14.5)
What does Bone expect to see when she looks in the mirror? She has some pretty negative opinions of herself, both in terms of the person she is inside and how she looks on the outside. But why is she thinking about Glen here? It's easy to forget, sometimes, that Bone might actually want Glen to love and respect her, and that she might care what he thinks about her. He is her stepfather, after all. This makes the abuse that much worse: Bone even wonders if there is a reason Glen has singled her out (that is, she wonders if there is something wrong with her).
The look in his eyes was a match for the one I'd seen in Earle's, the one I imagined in my own (15.31)
Hooray for Boatwright solidarity, even if it's criminal. Right? At this moment, Bone likes that there is something she feels she has inherited from her family. That's not always the case, of course: take a look at the next quote.
I was a Boatwright there for sure, as ugly as anything. I was a freshly gutted fish, my mouth gaping open above my bandaged shoulder and arm, my neck still streaked dark with blood (21.9)
Okay, so if we list the criteria for being a Boatwright, we come up with 1) being ugly and 2) getting into bloody situations. It sounds like Bone is being sardonic here about what her beat-up appearance says about the family she comes from (see our "Writing Style" section for more on what we mean by "sardonic).
Aunt Ruth had told her after Lyle Parson's funeral that she would look the same till she died. "Now you look like a Boatwright. Now you got the look," she'd said. In all the years since, that prophecy had held true. Age and exhaustion had worn lines under Mama's mouth and eyes, narrowed her chin, and deepened the indentations beside her nose, but you could still see the beautiful girl she had been. Now that face was made new. Bones seemed to have moved, flesh fallen away, and lines deepened into gullies, while shadows darkened to streaks of midnight (22.33)
… And we come full circle. This scene is important because it shows us that, even though Anney is leaving Bone, that decision to leave has hit her hard—harder than Lyle's death, and even harder than all of the years spent dealing with Glen's aggression toward Bone.
In my imagination I was proud and defiant. I'd stare back at him with my teeth set, making no sound at all, no shameful scream, no begging. Those who watched admired me and hated him. (8.43)
Characters' fantasies in literature are often good indicators of what type of things they're lacking in their lives. We can tell from Bone's fantasy that one of the things she wishes is that she were stronger, which indicates that she currently feels powerless in relation to Glen. We also learn, because she wants to be watched, that she wishes someone would acknowledge and understand what she is going through with the abuse.
Growing up was like falling into a hole. The boys would quite school and sooner or later go to jail for something silly. I might not quit school, not while Mama had any say in the matter, but what difference would that make? What was I going to do in five years? Work in the textile mill? Join Mama at the diner? It all looked bleak to me. No wonder people got crazy as they grew up. (12.28)
Bone wants out from her family's way of life. But how does she even begin to imagine what a different life would look like, given what she has been led to believe about herself? Hey, being called trash all of your life doesn't go without consequences.
"I am so tired of people whining about what might happen to them, never taking no chances or doing anything new. I'm glad you an't gonna be like that, Bone. I'm counting on you to get out there and do things, girl. Make people nervous and make your old aunt glad." (12.45)
Raylene knows what we know: our girl Bone has potential. Bone is perfectly capable of growing into an awesome person, but what she needs is some positive reinforcement to undo the loads and loads of negativity that has been piled on her over the years by Glen, the Waddells, and everyone else who looks down on her family. Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone like Raylene to help them through harsh times. What do you think might have happened to Bone without her aunts to help her out?
"But it's different for the kids. Seems like they're all the time wanting just what they can't have, and they've got such a funny does of pride."
"No pride at all or too much, I can't tell sometimes." (12.107-108)
Bone cares a lot about what other people think of her. But what if she didn't? There are the obvious reasons why she might want something that other people have, like a big house or black patent Mary Janes (who doesn't want those?), but she also wants those things so that people can't look down on her. What she has, in this case, starts to define how she thinks about herself. Does she ever learn to just accept herself as she is?
I was locked away and safe. What I really was could not be touched. What I really wanted was not yet imagined. Somewhere far away a child was screaming, but right then, it was not me. (12.134)
You might say that Bone's "happy place" is somewhere where she is not only physically safe, but also where she will not be judged for her feelings and desires.
Everything in my life was just as uncertain. I too could be standing somewhere and find myself running into the wall of my own death. (14. 4)
The realization that you are never too young for death is a hard thing to handle, and it's kind of a game-changer for Bone. She starts to think about her Life-with-a-capital-L and who she wants to be as a Person-with-a-capital-P. Do most kids think this way? Do they have to? Does Bone's early exposure to life's hardships have any positive effects?
"I made my life, the same way it looks like you're gonna make yours—out of pride and stubbornness and too much anger. You better think hard, Ruth Anne, about what you want and who you're mad at. You better think hard." (18.81)
We could point to a lot of things that Bone is well within reason to be mad about. But as Raylene points out, the question she needs to ask herself in order to grow is where that anger is going to get her in the end.
At the hospital when they had left me alone in the bathroom for a minute, I had looked at myself in the mirror and known I was a different person. Older, meaner, rawboned, crazy, and hateful. I was full of hate. I had spit on the glass, spit on my life, not caring anymore who I was or what I would be. I had wanted to laugh at everyone, Raylene and the nurses, all of them watching me like some fragile piece of glass ready to shatter around boiling water. I was boiling inside. I was cooking away. I was who I was going to be, and she was a terrible person. (22.12)
This reminds us of what Ruth says to Anney after Lyle dies: it's hard to imagine that there will be any other event in Bone's life that will hit her as hard. But Bone thinks that means that she will stay stuck that way forever. Is that what it means?
The child I had been was gone with the child she had been. We were new people, and we didn't know each other anymore. (22.45)
Well, this sounds pretty coming-of-age-y, doesn't it? Even though we say it all the time, what exactly does it mean to no longer be a child? Also, why does growing up mean becoming a different person to the people around you?
What would I be like when I was fifteen, twenty, thirty? Would I be as strong as she had been, as hungry for love, as desperate, determined, and ashamed? (22.59)
Here we are, thinking about the future—not even the future as some vague fuzzy concept, but, like, the scary future you measure in birthdays. Why, at the moment that Anney leaves, is Bone thinking about her own adulthood?
Love, at least love for a man not already part of the family, was something I was a little unsure about. Aunt Alma said love had more to do with how pretty a body was than anyone would ever admit […] (3.1)
So, this is the first moment in Bone's life where she is acknowledging that there are different ways of loving a person, and it's also a PG-rated nod toward sexual desire. The problem is, we know that Glen is never going to develop the paternal love for Bone that he should, and that instead he is going to sexualize his stepdaughter—merging two kinds of affections that really shouldn't be merged... assuming he is capable of feeling love to begin with, which is highly questionable for someone as narcissistic as he is.
"Yeah, Glen loves Anney. He loves her like a gambler loves a fast racehorse or a desperate man loves whisky. That kind of love eats a man up. I don't trust that boy, don't want our Anney marrying him." (4.5)
Trust the Eustis aunts. What exactly is "that kind of love"? Can you describe it without an addiction metaphor? Why might that be the kind of love that Glen feels for Anney, given what we know about Glen?
"She needs him, needs him like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth […]" (4.6)
Okay, maybe this isn't an addiction metaphor (or addiction simile, as it were), but still, there's this weird sense of need, or desperation, or necessity, or whatever you want to call it. But is it a happy need? What kind of love is it that can't be described positively?
It was mushy. Mama and Daddy Glen always hugging and rubbing on each other, but it was powerful too. Sex. (5.68)
Bone is realizing that sexual attraction is, to use her great choice of words, "powerful." Anney's love for her children versus her love for Glen is going to become the central conflict later in the novel, and this is important set-up that helps us understand that Anney is pulled in both directions.
"I just don't understand sometimes, Bone, how things got so messed up, the simplest things—me and Teresa, Mama and Daddy, your mama and Glen. Hell, even Ruth and Travis. You know, Travis left Ruth once when their kids were little, just took off for two months and never said a thing. And anybody can see how he loves her. Sometimes I just don't understand." (9.54)
Picture this: two people love each other. Simple, right? Well, maybe if you live in a vacuum. Lots of things can stress out a relationship, as we have seen from Exhibit A: The Boatwrights. What makes these relationships so difficult? All relationships have problems, but what about these problems?
"Still, I look at Glen and I can see he an't never been loved like he needed to be. But the boy's deeper and darker than I can figure out. It's you I worry about. I know the kind of love you got in you. I know how you feel about Glen. You'd give your life to save him, and maybe that'll make it come out right, and maybe it won't." (9.98)
See Glen's "Character Analysis" for more on how a lack of fatherly love has caused him some serious daddy issues. That aside, what we're encountering here is the scary possibility that love won't be enough to save the situation. Anney, on the other hand, seems to hang on to the belief that love will hold everything together. Talk about a sticky situation. How is the novel trying to reconcile love with violence? Or is it?
When she spoke again her voice was fierce, desperate. "He loves her. He does. He loves us all. I don't know. I don't know. Oh God. Raylene, I love him. I know you'll hate me. Sometimes I hate myself, but I love him. I love him." (17.126)
Is Anney in denial here about Glen loving Bone? What do you think her perspective is on all of this? Do you think that Anney wants to love Glen? Does she love in him spite of herself? Does she truly understand what is happening?
"Girl, you are seriously confused about love. Seriously." (18.53)
We cheer pretty much every time Raylene says anything, and we're going to do it again. Raylene knows a thing or two about love and the trouble it causes. Bone certainly is confused about love. Then again, who in this novel isn't?
"You don't know how your mama loves you," she had said. "You can't even imagine." Like Alma loved Annie, maybe, like Ruth loved her sons D.W. and Dwight and Tommy Lee, so much that she made Travis swear not to bury her until they got home. I chewed on a fingernail and watched Mama walk away, wondering if she still loved me and what I would do when we went back to Daddy Glen. (18.74)
All right, so here we get to what has at this point become the central conflict of the novel: familial love versus romantic or sexual love. By familial love, we are specifically referring to the love between parent and child. It has kind of become a competition at this point, especially for Anney, who is already torn in two directions.
"Oh, but that's why I got to cut his throat," she said plainly. "If I didn't love the son of a bitch, I'd let him live forever." (19.35)
If Alma didn't care about Wade, then she wouldn't what he did or with whom he did it. She says she needs to "cut his throat" because she can't handle Wade cheating on her and being mean to her. Alma, like Anney, experiences love as an overpowering emotion that overrides other considerations, such as the bad behavior of the men they love.
Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she'd ever spent bent over other peoples' peanuts and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground. The stamp on that birth certificate burned her like the stamp she knew they'd tried to put on her. No-good, lazy, shiftless. (1.10)
For Anney, Bone's on-paper illegitimacy is society's way of reminding her of her place in a way that seems "official." No wonder she's so eager to change it.
"We're not bad people," Mama told us. "We're not even really poor. Anybody says something to you, you keep that in mind. We're not bad people. And we pay our way. We just can't always pay when people want."
Reese and I nodded earnestly, agreeing wordlessly, but we didn't believe her. We knew what the neighbors called us, what Mama wanted to protect us from. We knew who we were. (6.52)
Look at how "what the neighbors called us" and "who we were" become the same thing in this quote, as though one determines the other. Anney tries to give her kids an alternative by telling them that they are not what other people say they are, but she doesn't seem to win out.
How could Reese and I be worthy of all that, the roses in their gardens, the sunlight on those polished windows and flowered drapes, the china plates gleaming behind glass cabinets? I stared in at the spines of those books, wanting it all, wanting the furniture, the garden, the big open kitchen with its dishes for everyday and others for special, the freezer in the utility room and the plushy seats on all the dining-room chairs. (6.63)
Does Bone actually want these things, or does she want to be the kind of person who has all those things? What is the difference? Why do possessions define a person's identity here?
"Look at that car. Just like any nigger trash, getting something like that."
"What'd you expect? Look what he married."
"Her and her kids sure go with that car…" (6.64-66)
Well, Glen's brothers certainly don't have any trouble looking down on different kinds of people. They also really enjoy talking about it. Anney has married "up," and the Waddells are totally not going to let her—or her daughters—forget it. The novel shows up the Waddells, though: Glen is ten times worse than all of the Boatwrights combined.
It looked like there were three of them down there, taking turns looking out, fully fascinated with us as we were with them. (6.66)
Parallelism, folks. Bone is the one to realize that the black kids downstairs are probably similar in a lot of ways to her and her cousins; later, this realization will allow her to relate racism to the classism she herself perpetually experiences. Her cousins, on the other hand, go on spouting the same racist stuff we hear from Wade.
No hunger would make me take anything else of theirs. I could feel a kind of heat behind my eyes that lit up everything I glanced at. It was dangerous, that heat. It wanted to pour out and burn everything up, everything they had that we didn't have, everything that made them think they were better than us. (7.69)
Being made to feel inferior definitely fires up some serious pride (among other things) in Bone. At various moments in the novel, Bone uses different metaphors to describe how being called and treated like trash makes her feel; see if you can spot them.
The way Shannon said "nigger" tore at me, the tone pitched exactly like the echoing sound of Aunt Madeline sneering "trash" when she thought I wasn't close enough to hear. (11.117)
Yup, Bone is empathetic when it comes to people discriminating against and putting down other groups of people. Not to ask a huge general question or anything, but why do you think racism is addressed at all in the novel? What is the novel trying to tell us about prejudice (aside from the fact that it's bad)?
"Trash rises," Aunt Raylene joked the first afternoon I spent with her. "Out here were no one can mess with it, trash rises all the time." (12.35)
A wild double-entendre appears: yes, Raylene is talking about the literal trash that floats down the river by her house, but she's also talking about the Boatwrights themselves, who are repeatedly labeled "trash." The thing with a label like that is that it only exists if there are other people to call you it and make you feel it. Raylene chooses to live way out in the outskirts, where she doesn't feel bogged down by anyone else's judgments and labels... and we'll see later in the book that Raylene knows a thing or two about labels.
I was part of the trash down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death. (14.7)
Believe you us, we know that books aren't always sympathetic when it comes to marginalized groups. And hey, seeing yourself excluded from literature and other forms of culture can sometimes have the same effect as what the people immediately around you say. What kind of exclusions are going on here, and what does it mean that Bone draws a parallel between the Boatwrights and the African Americans living her in her town?
"They look at you the way you look at them," she told me bluntly. "You don't know who those children are. Maybe they're nasty and silly and hateful. Maybe not. You don't know what happens to them when they go home. You don't know their daddies or mamas, who their people are. why they do things, or what they're scared of. You think because they wear different clothes than you and go by so fast, they're rich and cruel and thinking terrible things about you. Could be they're looking at you sitting up here eating blackberries and looking at them like they're spit on a stove—could be they're jealous of you, hungry for what you got, afraid of what you would do if they ever stepped in the yard." (18.81)
Remember how Bone feels when Shannon uses the N-word? Well, maybe she could use some of that empathy right about now. Does what Raylene says expand how we're supposed to think about that empathy?
"An't nobody says nothing to my little sister, an't nobody can touch that girl or what's hers. You just better watch yourself around her."
You better. You better. You just better watch yourself around her. (1.68)
This, folks, is what we call foreshadowing. If we took the quote by itself, we might not recognize it as such; but we know there's something up based on the creepy echo Bone gives us afterwards. It's like the memory of the statement itself takes on a different meaning in light of what happens in the novel.
It seemed our disbelief was what made him fail. Our lack of faith made him the man he was, made him go out to work unable to avoid getting in a fight, made him sarcastic to his bosses and nasty to the shop owners he was supposed to be persuading to take his accounts. Money would get tighter and Daddy Glen would stare at us like we cost him cash with every breath we took. (6.46)
It looks like Glen has a little problem with accountability. Wait, little problem? We mean absolutely, totally enormous problem. This becomes especially true when he has to account for hurting Bone. "I went crazy" (8.19, 20.87) seems to be his favorite way of shirking blame, but he has tons of others. In Glen's eyes, nothing is ever his fault.
What had I done? I had run in the house. What was she asking? I wanted her to go on talking and understanding without me saying anything. I wanted her to love me enough to leave him, to pack us up and take us away from him, to kill him if need be. (8.17)
Does Anney actually blame Bone for Glen's behavior, or does she act the way she does simply because it seems easier than confronting the fact that Glen is an abusive parent?
I lived in a world of shame. I hid my bruises as if they were evidence of crimes I had committed. I knew I was a sick disgusting person. I couldn't stop my stepfather from beating me, but I was the one who masturbated. I did that, and how could I explain to anyone that I hated being beaten but still masturbated to the story I told about myself? (8.45)
Bone harbors a lot of guilt, but what do we make of the fact that she's opening herself up like this to us? It's clear that her fantasies are part of the reason why she feels like she can't tell anyone about what Glen is doing: she feels that somehow she will also be implicated or even blamed for the whole thing. Why would she think that? Do you think that it is a realistic fear (especially given some of the things that Anney says to her after Glen beats her)?
"I have sinned," he'd say, and hold his hands out to me, beg my forgiveness and cry my name. Mama would say no. My aunts would say no. My uncles, Reese, the minister, everyone in the world would stand up and say no. But I would pull myself up from my sickbed. I would look right into his eyes, into the lamps of his soul.
Yes, I would say.
Yes. I forgive you.
Then probably I would die. (8.73-76)
Because Bone is the one who has actually been abused by Glen, she is the only one who can give him forgiveness, even if that forgiveness might kill her. Bone needs solidarity right now, which is part of why her fantasies include other people watching her as she gets beaten. Right now, her abuse is something that she can't talk about—and something she doesn't even know how to talk about. She wants people to know, and to feel outraged on her behalf. Also, this desire that she be the one to forgive Glen—and not anybody else—foreshadows some of the events that will happen later in the novel.
I'd said I could never hate her, but I hated her now for the way she held him, the way she stood there crying over him. Could she love me and still hold him like that? (20.113)
Good question, Bone. We're not going to pretend to have an answer, but the uncertainty here is kind of the point. How are we supposed to understand what is happening in this scene? Do we feel compelled to direct blame at someone? Do we feel angrier with Anney or Glen? Why?
"We do terrible things to the ones we love sometimes," she said. "We can't explain it. We can't excuse it. It eats us up, but we do them just the same. You want to know about your mama, I know. But I can't tell you anything. None of us can. No one knows where she's gone. I can't explain that to you, Bone. I just can't, but I know your mama loves you. Don't doubt that. She loves you more than her life, and she an't never gonna forgive herself for what she's done to you, what she allowed to happen." (22.10)
We're just gonna direct your attention back to the epigraph of the novel for this one: bad actions eventually catch up with you. It may not happen right away, and it may not happen in ways that other people will recognize... but it will happen. Also, we'll point you to the last quote of this theme. Connections, people, connections.
How do you forgive somebody when you cannot even speak her name, when you cannot stand to close your eyes and see her face? (22.20)
Nobody ever said that forgiveness was easy. It's probably even harder when you're twelve. And you've been abandoned. By your mother. After your stepfather raped you. Yeah, forgiveness is not easy. So then how do we read the very end of the novel? Is it forgiveness that Bone feels for Anney?
Maybe it wasn't her fault. It wasn't mine. Maybe it wasn't a matter of anybody's fault. Maybe it was like Raylene said, the way the world goes, the way hearts get broken all the time. (22.43)
Maybe we naturally like to blame people. Maybe it's easier for some reason. Maybe it's not always necessary to blame someone. Maybe holding on to blame does more harm in the long run... Sorry, we were just continuing Raylene's train of thought. But those "maybes" sure are important; do you think Bone believes what Raylene says? Take a look at the line that comes directly before this one in the novel.
I pressed my face into her neck, and let it all go. The grief. The anger. The guilt and shame. It would come back later. It would come back forever. (22.48)
This is a moment when we hear an older, more mature Bone—the one who looks back and narrates the novel from a more seasoned perspective—talks about those feelings of grief and anger and guilt and shame inevitably returning. How does this affect our view of the blame Bone places on Anney? What makes her able to let it go? What will allow her to let it go in the future?
An't it time the Lord did something, rained fire and retribution on Greenville County? An't there sin enough, grief enough, inch by inch of pain enough? An't the measure made yet? (1.72)
Wow, it sounds like some bad things have happened in Greenville County—at least, bad enough to merit otherworldly fire rain... so, pretty high on the bad scale, we're thinking. Why do you think we learn this at the beginning of the novel? And why do you think Bone is asking this rhetorical question?
What was the thing she wouldn't tell me, the first thing, the place where she had made herself different from all her brothers and sisters and shut her mouth on her life? (2.76)
Well, if we knew the answer to that, then there wouldn't be much in the way of conflict in this novel. We know that Anney goes through some serious suffering at the beginning of the novel, but that's just about all we know; Anney never really talks to Bone about what she's thinking. So since we can't read Anney's mind, what do we make of her suffering, based on outward evidence alone?
Sometimes when I looked up into his red features and blazing eyes, I knew that it was nothing I had done that made him beat me. It was just me, the fact of my life, who I was in his eyes and mine. I was evil. Of course I was. I admitted it to myself, locked my fingers into fists, and shut my eyes to everything I did not understand. (8.33)
Well, Bone's got part of this right. It's definitely true that Glen isn't angry at anything specific Bone has done; he's just angry at the fact that she exists. But we're going to call bunk on the part where she says she's evil. Remember, Bone is just a kid trying to make sense of all this, so she is trying to rationalize Glen's irrationality by coming to some irrational (and self-deprecating) conclusions.
It was the bones in my head I thought about, the hard, porous edge of my skull cradling my brain, reassuring me that no matter what happened I could heal up from it eventually. It was the heat in my heart, my hard, gritty center. I linked my fingers behind my head, clenched my teeth, and rocked back and forth. The sturdy stock we were boasted to be came down in me to stubbornness and bone. (8.37)
Is that a clue into the symbolism behind Bone's name? We think it is. Bone—you know, actual, legit bone—becomes something of an extended metaphor for Bone. So aside from being tough, what else is true about bones? Well, you might think about the fact that bones can break, but when they do, they usually recover—even if it might take a long time, and even if there might be some damage that makes the bone never quite the same afterwards.
I spooned loose dirt into the little pot, sprinkled water on the dusty leaves. The cutting drooped already, getting ready to lose half its growth. But the stem was moist and flexible under my fingers. Strong. It would come back strong. (9.115)
No, Bone is not just referring to her gardening skills. She's thinking about her ability to be resilient—to bounce back. In three sentences, the plant has become a metaphor for Bone. Pretty impressive.
The hunger, the lust, and the yearning were palpable. I understood that hunger as I understood nothing else, though I could not tell if what I truly hungered for was God or love or absolution. Salvation was complicated. (10.64)
When Bone was at James Waddell's house and he called her family trash, she referred to feeling she experienced as a hunger. She also says that whenever she passes Woolworth's, she feels a raging hunger. Well, while her feelings toward religion are probably different from feelings of resentment, it's interesting that she chooses to use the same word. Bone knows that she wants something, that she seems to be missing something—but she doesn't know what it is.
She knows, I thought, she knows what it is to want what you are never going to have. (11.94)
Bone is referring to Shannon Pearl here. What Bone wants in this case is to be a gospel singer. But what does Shannon want?
How long had it been since I had seen Mama not tired, not sad, not scared? Forever. It seemed like forever. (14.14)
A better question might be, do we ever see Anney not tired, sad, or scared? Do we ever see her carefree and happy? If so, when? And then what changes it? Is this considered suffering in the novel? Why or why not? Should it be?
Everything felt hopeless. He looked at me and I was ashamed of myself. It was like sliding down an endless hole, seeing myself at the bottom, dirty, ragged, poor, stupid. But at the bottom, at the darkest point, my anger would come and I would know that he had no idea who I was, that he never saw me as the girl who worked hard for Aunt Raylene, who got good grades no matter how often I changed schools, who ran errands for Mama and took good care of Reese. I was not dirty, not stupid, and if I was poor, whose fault was that? (14.20)
Which Bone is this passage referring to—Bone the girl going through all of this in the story, or Bone the narrator looking back on her life and reflecting? Maybe the first option: she uses the world "would," which suggests that something hasn't happened yet and might not happen for sure.
I pressed my face into her neck, and let it all go. The grief. The anger. The guilt and the shame. It would come back later. It would come back forever. We had all wanted the simplest thing, to love and be loved and be safe together, but we had lost it and I didn't know how to get it back. (22.48)
It's just as Earle says earlier in the novel: "I just don't understand sometimes, Bone, how things got so messed up, the simplest things" (9.54). Maybe the idea of wanting love is simple in and of itself, but achieving it is somehow difficult. But it seems to be the one thing that all the characters in the novel suffer from in one form or another.
It was like sex, that food, too good to waste on the middle of the day and a roomful of men too tired to taste […] He began to feel for the first time like one of the boys, a grown man accepted by the notorious and dangerous Black Earle Boatwright, staring across the counter at one of the prettiest women he'd ever seen. (1.50)
Glen's priorities are kind of weird here: first he thinks about being accepted by Earle, and second he thinks about Anney, the supposed conveyor of orgasmic (not to be confused with "organic") food. It seems that for Glen, sex is more about showing yourself to be a man than it is about sex itself.
She flushed then, and smelled her own sweat, nervously unable to tell if it came from fear or lust. (1.58)
Fear and lust seem like pretty different feelings. Shouldn't you be able to tell them apart? Well, the truth is, it's not impossible to feel both, and that's probably why Anney can't tell the difference here. The fact that Anney simultaneously distrusts Glen and feels attracted to him foreshadows their relationship.
Love, at least love for a man not already part of the family, was something I was a little unsure about. Aunt Alma said love had more to do with how pretty a body was than anyone would ever admit […] (3.1)
Word, Alma. Bone is still quite young at this point, so she doesn't really understand romantic and sexual attraction. Alma seems to think that it's really more sexual than it is romantic, and the more we learn about Anney and Glen's relationship, the more we get the sense that this might be true—at least for them.
I saw how she blushed when he looked at her or touched her, even in passing. A flush would appear on her neck, and her cheeks would brighten until her whole face glowed pink and hot. Glen Waddell turned Mama from a harried, worried mother into a giggling, hopeful girl. (3.12)
You're probably wondering why this in the Sex section instead of the Love section, because it seems like a cheesy love-is-a-many-splendored-thing kind of passage. The fact is, the two aren't unrelated: Glen is having a physical effect on Anney. Look at what the passage describes: ruddy cheeks, flushed face, glowing skin. Anney's blood is pumping, folks. We can guess where this is going.
He smiled, and for the first time I saw the smile in his eyes as plain as the one on his mouth. (4.28)
This quote, taken out of context, seems pretty harmless, even positive—hey, a genuine smile from Glen, right? The thing is, this passage occurs in the hospital parking lot right before Glen molests Bone for the first time. Thinking about it that way, this quote is pretty scary. Remember how no one can seem to understand what's happening behind Glen's eyes? It's like suddenly, at this moment, Glen has revealed himself... and it's not pretty.
"Man's got a horse dick," Butch boasted to other boys, and that I understood. But it wasn't Daddy Glen's sex that made me nervous. It was those hands, the restless way the fingers would flex and curl while he watched me lean close to Mama. (5.61)
Plug your ears, folks. Actually, don't, because this quote actually shows us something really important about how Bone thinks about sex. As most other kids probably do, Bone thinks of sex in the most literal terms, meaning as intercourse. But she also has an underlying sense that there is something sexual about Glen's feelings toward her, even if it doesn't involve sexual intercourse. This gap in meaning is going to cause some confusion for Bone as she tries to explain Glen's abuse.
Mama and Daddy Glen always hugging and rubbing on each other, but it was powerful too. Sex. Was that what Daddy Glen had been doing to me in the parking lot? Was it what I had started doing to myself whenever I was alone in the afternoons? (5.68)
As in the last quote, Bone is trying to sort out just how many forms sex can take. She seems to have come to a broader understanding here, but she still words it in terms of a question that she doesn't have an answer for. Also, she is realizing that sexual attraction is "powerful," which is a word that can have both good and bad connotations (foreshadowing, anyone?).
The sound of Mama crying grew softer, faded. In the stillness that followed I heard Daddy Glen whispering, heard a murmur as Mama replied. Then there was a sigh and a creak of their bed as he comforted Mama and she comforted him. Sex. They were making love, Mama sighing and sobbing and Daddy Glen repeating her name over and over. (8.21)
Imagine how Bone must feel listening to her mother and Glen having sex (like that isn't awkward enough) right after he has beaten her. It's like adding salt to the wound. There are definitely multiple occasions in the novel where we feel like Anney is choosing her desire for Glen over her obligation to protect Bone, so it'd be incomplete not to acknowledge the role sex plays in Anney's reluctance to leave Glen—or rather, the fact that they have an intense, interdependent relationship. If their sex life shows anything, it's that.
I could not tell Mama. I would not have known how to explain why I stood there and let him touch me. It wasn't sex, not like a man and woman pushing their naked bodies into each other, but then, it was something like sex, something powerful and frightening that he wanted badly and I did not understand at all. Worse, when Daddy Glen held me that way it was the only time his hands were gentle, and when he let me go, I would rock on uncertain feet. (8.26)
There is a lot of guilt and shame associated with sexual abuse, even when it's pretty clear (to us) who the victim is. It's not just that Bone is young and doesn't really understand her abuse in this case; it's also that she's afraid she will be blamed for it. We've already seen Anney blame Bone when Glen beats her, so really there is a precedent for Bone feeling this way. Also, we know that Bone has some really mixed-up feelings about the abuse. Obviously she hates it, but since it's an inescapable fact of her life (since Anney keeps going back to Glen), she isn't sure of how to deal with it.
I knew what she meant, the thing men did to women. I knew what the act was supposed to be, read about it, heard the joke. "What's a South Carolina virgin? 'At's a ten-year-old can run fast." He hadn't done that. Had he? (9.44)
Okay, let's talk about this joke and why it's important for the story. Basically the joke's punch line is that in South Carolina, people start having sex and a really young age, and usually unwillingly (unless they can outrun their rapists). Because they're hillbillies. Get it? Right. Anyway, the fact is that this joke is actually a painfully close reality for Bone, who, yes, has been sexually assaulted at a young age. But what's throwing Bone off is the word "virgin." Again, Bone isn't sure what to call what Glen does to her when it doesn't extend to actual sex. She knows that there's something sexual about it, but it's not sex as she understands it, so it totally confuses her.