Study Guide

Bastard Out of Carolina Family

By Dorothy Allison

Family

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?

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