Bastard Out of Carolina

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Bastard Out of Carolina
Dorothy Allison

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


In her discussion of Dorothy Allison's literary career in Feminist Writers, Deborah T. Meem writes, "For Allison, writing is a dramatic, life-affirming act in a world which consistently threatens death. A storyteller since childhood, Allison chronicles her discovery how … writing them [her most terrible stories] down gives her power of the experiences." Dorothy Allison has never been shy about the autobiographical background of her powerful first novel Bastard Out of Carolina. Allison was born to a poor, "white trash" southern family. Her stepfather sexually abused her for six years starting when she was only five years old, and her mother, whom Allison deeply loved, was unable or unwilling to deal with this issue. Bastard Out of Carolina is not Allison's first important piece of writing, but for many readers, it remains her truest.

Allison recounts the story of Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright, the illegitimate daughter of a fifteen-year-old, unmarried, uneducated waitress. Bone's mother, a child herself, desperately seeks love and familial stability, which she has never experienced in her own large, unorthodox brood of kin. Anney's need for love is so strong that she turns a blind eye to the abuse—physical, emotional, and sexual—that her second husband, Daddy Glen, heaps upon her young daughter. Before even reaching the age of thirteen, Bone has experienced a life's supply of disappointment, bitterness, self-hatred, and even hatred for her mother. If Bastard Out of Carolina sharply affects many readers because of the swell of truth behind the characters and their actions, that is partially Allison's intention. For Allison once explained what storytelling meant to her in an interview she gave to Alexis Jetter of The New York Times Magazine: "I believe that storytelling can be a strategy to help you make sense of your life. It's what I've done."

Author Biography

Dorothy Allison was born on April 11, 1949, in Greenville, South Carolina, to a poor, unmarried fifteen-year-old girl. Her mother soon married, and when Allison was five her stepfather began sexually abusing her. This situation lasted until Allison was eleven, at which time she finally brought herself to tell a relative. Allison's mother learned of the situation and put a stop to it, but the family still stayed together.

At the age of eighteen, Allison left home to attend college in Florida. At school she learned about and came to embrace feminism, finding that it gave her a completely different vision of the world. She lived in a lesbian-feminist commune for a period of time. She later attended graduate school in New York.

Allison began writing seriously in the early 1980s. She published poetry and short stories, many of which dealt with sexuality and sometimes shocking issues of abuse. Her 1983 poetry collection The Women Who Hate Me angered mainstream feminists in its praise of sexual promiscuity and sadomasochism. Despite the controversy her work generated, she established a name for herself among writers of gay fiction. Her success was solidified when her 1989 short story collection Trash won the Lambda literary awards for best small press book and best lesbian book.

Allison also began work on Bastard Out of Carolina, which has a strong and public autobiographical element. The novel, which was published in 1992, was an immediate success. It was a National Book Award finalist, received much positive criticism, and became a national bestseller. It was also made into a movie by Angelica Houston.

Allison followed up Bastard Out of Carolina with a collection of essays entitled Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature (1994); Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995), a memoir of her family that included photographs; and a second novel, Cavedweller (1998). Allison currently lives with her partner and their adopted son in California.

Plot Summary

At fifteen years old, Anney Boatwright gives birth to her first baby out of wedlock. The child comes to be called Bone. Anney stubbornly tries to legitimize her child. She tries several years in a row to get a birth certificate that is not marked with the word "illegitimate." When Anney is seventeen, she marries a man who wants to be a good father to her child. Her first husband dies shortly thereafter, however, leaving her with yet another daughter, Reese, to care for. Anney comes from a large family, most of whom live in Greenville, South Carolina, and the family relies on each other for money, help, and comfort.

Through her brother Earle, Anney meets Glen Waddell. Glen promises to love and take care of her girls, which wins him Anney's love. Two years later, they marry. Glen, however, is a failure. He comes from a middle-class family but cannot hold a job. He is filled with rage against his own family, who make their dislike of him apparent, and he takes out his frustrations and anger on Bone. He first sexually abuses her less than a year after the marriage, masturbating against her while his wife gives birth to their stillborn baby.

As Glen finds it increasingly impossible to hold a job, the family moves constantly, and Bone and Reese are always hungry. One night Anney prostitutes herself to get money to buy her children food. When Bone is ten, Daddy Glen starts viciously and methodically beating her. He puts aside several belts, which he keeps well-oiled, for this purpose. The family witnesses the first of his savage beatings. Anney gets angry at Glen but forgives him. Bone quickly realizes that she must be careful around Glen to not invoke his rage. At times, however, she cannot keep herself from "sassing back." In reality, there is nothing Bone can do to prevent the beatings. Anney insists on deluding herself that Bone is simply "prone to accident," and gets furious when an intern at the hospital raises the specter of child abuse. She begs Bone to "be more careful" around Glen.

Around this time or perhaps even earlier, Glen's sexual abuse of Bone becomes a more regular practice. Bone tells no one what he is doing to her because she is ashamed and afraid of making him angry. She also has begun to masturbate, and her sexual fantasies center on violent scenarios. She imagines that a crowd of people watch as Glen beats her, but that she is defiant and unyielding. She feels great shame over these fantasies but does not stop them.

After a bad beating, Anney takes her children to Alma's, but two weeks later, they return home. Glen promises never to hurt Bone again, but she knows that he won't really change. Bone and Reese go over to Alma's after school, and Anney comes there to pick them up on her way home from work. Bone tells violent stories to her cousins, filled with rapes and murders. The family notices that she has changed, that her face is "scary" and that she is "almost mean-hearted." Bone starts going to the diner with Anney. She earns money washing dishes and spends most of it buying used books.

That summer, Bone goes to stay with and help out Aunt Ruth and Uncle Travis. Aunt Ruth has a debilitating illness and she has grown weaker. Bone realizes that Ruth is dying. Bone tells Ruth that Daddy Glens hates her, and Ruth agrees, noting that Glen is jealous of her and wants Anney all to himself. She asks Bone if Glen has ever sexually abused her, but Bone lies and says no. She does admit that he scares her, however. While Bone is at Ruth's, Glen gets a new job, and according to Anney, is "good as gold with Reese," but he never mentions Bone; it's as if she no longer exists. Ruth tells Anney that Bone will never be safe around Glen, but Anney insists that he does love her. Bone overhears this conversation and decides to spend the rest of the summer with Ruth.

Bone becomes interested in gospel music and religion. She starts reading the Bible, going to Christian youth groups, and trying to save her family, particularly her uncles. She becomes friends with Shannon Pearl, an albino who starts attending her school. Bone recognizes Shannon from the revivals that Shannon also attends with her family—her father books singers for the circuit and her mother sews costumes for the singers. Bone goes with the Pearls to gospel revivals and when Mr. Pearl is searching for new talent in the small country churches. One day, while Bone and Shannon are walking around, Bone hears a beautiful voice singing gospel music, but it comes from a "colored" church. Bone and Shannon get into a fight when Shannon calls them "niggers." Abruptly, Bone loses her religious bent along with her friendship with Shannon. She starts to spend a lot of time at Aunt Raylene's, helping to pick vegetables and fish garbage out of the river for Raylene to clean up and sell. When Shannon invites Bone to a barbecue right before Thanksgiving, however, Bone goes. She sees Shannon burn to death when a can of lighter fluid explodes in her hand.

Bone comes up with a plan to break into the Woolworth store. Several years ago, the manager had forbidden her to come into the store after she had confessed to stealing Tootsie Rolls. Now, she and her cousin Grey sneak into the store via an air duct. While Grey runs around the store, gathering goods to steal, Bone waits for him, for suddenly everything the store offers seems cheap and useless. As the two children run up the main street, Bone yells that the Woolworth is open, knowing it will be looted.

The next morning when Bone wakes up, Anney tells her that Ruth has died. The day before the funeral, when Glen picks on her, Bone snaps and yells back at him. He takes her into the bathroom and beats her bloody, but for the first time, Bone does not scream. While Anney is washing her wounds, she asks why Bone started yelling at Glen. Bone spends that night with Aunt Raylene at Ruth's house, helping her clean up and cook some food. The family returns to Ruth's house afterwards. Bone's cousin gives her some liquor, and she gets drunk. She goes to the bathroom, and Raylene finds her in there. While helping her get up, Raylene sees that Bone's underpants are bloodstained. She pulls Bone's skirt up and sees the marks of Glen's beating. Raylene calls the uncles, who take one look at their niece and go find Glen to beat him up. Anney comes to the bathroom, and Bone apologizes, claiming it was all her fault because she made Glen mad. Later, one of the aunts takes Glen to the hospital. Meanwhile, Anney moves herself and the girls to an apartment. Everyone is miserable; Anney hardly speaks and won't even let the aunts in for a visit. Upset because Anney seems completely unfeeling, Bone runs away to Raylene's and stays there for a few days, but finally returns home.

A few days after Bone returns home, Alma's youngest daughter dies. Soon afterwards, Alma goes crazy. When Anney and Bone arrive at her house, they see that Alma has destroyed and tossed most of her belongings out on the lawn. Alma has cuts on her forearms and on her face from broken glass. She tells Anney that she is waiting for Wade to come back so she can cut his throat with the razor she has in her pocket. Alma explains that she wanted another baby, but Wade refused to sleep with her because she was "old and ugly and fat."

Bone and Anney stay at Ruth's. That night, Bone tells Anney that she is waiting for her to go back to Daddy Glen. Anney tells Bone that she won't do that if Bone will hate her and that she won't go back until she knows Bone will be safe. Bone, however, says she will never live with Glen, no matter when her mother goes back. She will stay with one of the aunts instead. Bone stays at Alma's house. She hears from Reese that Anney is talking with Glen again. Then one afternoon he comes over to the house. Alma is out in the garden, and Glen finds Bone alone in the kitchen. He says that Bone must tell Anney that she wants them all to live together again. Bone refuses, saying Anney can return to him if she wants, and she tells Glen to leave. Glen shakes her with rage, lifting her off the floor. Glen tells Bone that everything is her fault: that she makes him crazy and act the way he does, that she makes Anney ashamed of loving him, that Anney is only leaving Glen because of her. He looks at Bone with eyes filled with hate. He tells Bone that Anney has said she will come back, that she needs a little more time, but if she wasn't going to come back, he would kill Bone. Glen kisses Bone, and she tries to stab him with a butter knife. Glen throws her on the floor and kicks her. Then he jerks her arm and drops her back down, dislocating her shoulder. He curses at her, and Bone tells him that she hates him and won't let Anney go back to him. He tears her clothes off, all the while saying that he should have done this a long time ago, that Bone always wanted it. He rapes her. Bone wishes only to kill him and die herself.

When Glen is finished, both he and Bone see Anney coming through the doorway. Anney starts to throw things at Glen, who swears that it isn't what it looks like. Bone wonders if Anney will think that she wanted him to do it. Anney helps Bone get up and takes her out to the car. All the while, Glen is begging Anney not to leave and saying that he doesn't know what happened and that he had only meant to talk to Bone. Anney puts Bone in the car. She hits Glen several times, and he drops to his knees in front of her telling her to kill him because he can't live without her. He begins to hit his head against the metal of the car door. Anney starts to cry and places her hands against his forehead to protect him. She holds his head against her belly. Watching them, Bone, for the first time, hates her mother.

When Bone comes back to consciousness, she is at the hospital with Anney, but her mother disappears. The sheriff comes to get her story. Suddenly the door swings open. Bone hopes it is Anney but it is Raylene. She kicks the sheriff out and spends the night in the hospital with Bone. The next day they return to Raylene's house. Raylene tries to explain that it is impossible for a woman to choose between her child and her lover; she made the woman she loved choose, and the woman chose the child, which just about killed them both. She tells Bone that no one knows where Anney has gone but that she loves her and that she will never forgive herself for what she let happen.

When Anney comes several days later, Bone is sitting alone on the porch. She tells Bone that she never thought Glen could do anything like that but that she loves Bone. Bone starts to cry, and Anney holds her. Anney draws away from the embrace, dropping an envelope in her lap. Then she leaves. Bone opens the envelope to find a copy of her birth certificate without the word "illegitimate" stamped on it. Bone thinks that at the age of only twelve, she has already developed into the person she is going to be: a Boatwright woman.


Aunt Alma Boatwright

Aunt Alma is married to Wade and has several children. She loves her husband, despite his numerous infidelities. The first time she learns that Wade has been unfaithful, she leaves him and moves with the children to an apartment. Bone notes at the time that she looks better than ever before and seems to relish her independence. However, when problems with the children arise, she returns home. Alma is devastated when her youngest child dies. Her husband refuses to have sex with her—and make another baby—and she physically attacks him. She is completely devastated because she has given her life, and all her love, to Wade. In her rage, she destroys many of their belongings and waits at home with a razor in her pocket to kill him. In time, however, she allows him to come home.

Anney Boatwright

Anney is Bone's mother. She is one of eight children born to a poor Southern family. Uneducated, underemployed, an unwed mother at the age of fifteen, a widow with two children at the age of nineteen, Anney is desperate for love and a stable family life. She marries Glen Waddell after she comes to believe that he will be a loving father to her two girls. Glen disappoints her—even sexually molesting Bone (though Anney does not know this) while Anney is in the hospital delivering their stillborn child. Anney, however, is determined to make the family work, and she refuses to acknowledge the cruelty that Glen openly displays toward Bone. Instead, she chooses to blame her own daughter for the violent attacks. She does not know of the sexual abuse at this time.

Like many of the novel's characters, Anney demonstrates conflicting aspects of her personality. She is independent and determined—as demonstrated by her multiple attempts to get a new and unmarked birth certificate for Bone, the length of her courtship with Glen, and her prostituting herself to earn money to feed her hungry children. At the same time she is weak, helpless, and even cruel—as demonstrated by her steadfastness in staying with Glen despite his abysmal treatment of her child. Her decision at the end of the novel—to leave town with Glen rather than stay with her child—is incomprehensible to her daughter (and to many readers). Before leaving, however, she does attempt to bestow upon her daughter a new identity by presenting Bone with a clean birth certificate, one that does not bear the damning stamp "illegitimate."

Uncle Beau Boatwright

Like Bone's other uncles, Beau drinks too much and has a violent temper. He never cared for Glen, primarily because Glen doesn't drink. With his brothers, he soundly beats Glen after the family discovers his violence toward Bone. After Glen rapes Bone, Beau buys himself a new shotgun in case he finds Glen.

Aunt Carr Boatwright

Aunt Carr is the only Boatwright of her generation to leave South Carolina. She was in love with Wade, but he chose Alma instead. Carr quickly found a husband and persuaded him to move to Baltimore, Maryland, where he had family. She returns to South Carolina once a year to visit. She still occupies the role of outsider, for instance, taking Wade's side in arguments and going against her sisters.

Media Adaptations

  • An audiotape of Bastard Out of Carolina, read by Allison, was published by Penguin High-bridge Audio in 1993.
  • Angelica Houston directed the movie version of Bastard Out of Carolina from a screenplay written by Anne Meredith. Jennifer Jason Leigh played the role of Anney, and Jena Malone played Bone.

Uncle Earle Boatwright

Uncle Earle is Bone's favorite uncle. When he is able, he helps Anney's family with much-needed money. He is known as Black Earle in three counties, and Raylene says it is because of his "black black heart." He is a man of extremes. For instance, he is devoted to his family, but his wife leaves him, taking their three children, because of his infidelity. Women find Earle attractive, and he is always involved with a young woman whom he eventually leaves. Throughout the course of the novel, he spends some time incarcerated in the "country farm," or jail.

Uncle Nevil Boatwright

Uncle Nevil is known as the quietest man in Greenville County. Early on, he recognizes that Glen could easily turn bad. After Bone's rape, he spends his nights searching throughout the county for Glen.

Aunt Raylene Boatwright

According to Bone, Aunt Raylene has always been different from the other Boatwright sisters. Raylene leads a private, solitary life and has few friends. She was wild when she was younger, running off to join the carnival, passing herself off as a man, and falling deeply in love with a woman. After returning home to South Carolina, she took up residence outside of town. She quit working at the mill after twenty years and makes a living by fishing trash out of the river, cleaning it up, and selling it by the side of the road. As Daddy Glen's abuse gets worse, Bone finds in Aunt Raylene a strong, comforting presence and spends increasing amounts of time with her. It is Raylene who discovers Bone's bloody bruises and shows her brothers, thereby inciting their beating of Glen. After the rape, Raylene takes Bone into her home. She tries to make Bone feel as protected as possible and also wants her to understand that her mother does love her despite making the choice to stay with Glen.

Aunt Ruth Boatwright

Ruth is the oldest of the Boatwright sisters, and she helped raise her younger brothers and sisters. She is a maternal woman but is somewhat estranged from her own children. Anney sends Bone to help Aunt Ruth as she grows increasingly weak from the disease that eventually kills her. Bone spends most of the summer with her aunt and uncle. Aunt Ruth shows real concern for Bone, asking if Daddy Glen ever sexually abuses her, but Bone cannot tell her the devastating truth. Ruth dies before the novel ends, and it is at her funeral that the extended family learns the physical extent of Glen's beatings.

Ruth Anne Boatwright

See Bone


Bone is the protagonist of the novel. The story focuses on her life between the ages of five and almost thirteen. Despite the poverty in which she grows up, Bone develops an intellectual curiosity. She is a born storyteller, entertaining her many cousins with the tales she makes up. She also loves to read, spending her dishwashing earnings on sec ondhand books. She is briefly drawn to evangelical Christianity for the salvation it promises but comes to recognize its falsity.

Bone is an illegitimate child, born to the unwed, fifteen-year-old Anney. After her mother's marriage to Glen, she becomes the focus of his rage and jealousy. He soon begins sexually and physically abusing her. Partially because of Glen's actions, Bone develops into an independent, defiant, and sexually precocious child. At the same time, however, she blames herself for his unwanted attention and feels enormous shame. She acts out her ambivalence. For instance, she does not tell Aunt Alma about Glen's sexual abuse even when her aunt directly questions her, but she still deliberately provokes Glen. Bone's emotional predicament is not helped by the fact that Anney also places blame for Glen's actions on the child. When the family finally learns of Glen's savagery against Bone, the uncles beat him so badly that he must be hospitalized. Even then, however, Bone continues to apologize to her mother for what is happening to Glen.

After this beating, the family leaves Glen, but Bone is certain that her mother will go back to him. When Anney says that she will only take him back if she is sure that Bone will be safe, Bone, knowing the impossibility of that certitude, refuses to live at home: she will stay with Aunt Alma instead. It is Bone's determination that leads to Glen's final attack. When he comes to Alma's, he claims that he wants only to speak to her, but in his rage—and his desire to subdue Bone once and for all—he brutally rapes her. Though Anney witnesses the culmination of this act, she still decides to desert her daughter and stay with Glen. Bone returns from the hospital to Aunt Raylene's house, feeling like the events of her short life have already shaped her into the woman that she will become: a Boatwright woman.

Bone's Real Father

Bone knows very little about her real father, not even his name. Anney will not talk about him, and Granny chased him out of town after she learned that Anney was pregnant. He saw Bone only once, when he came to visit eight days after her birth. Granny tells Bone that he has a wife and six children, that he sells insurance to African Americans, and that he has never been in jail.


Deedee is Bone's cousin, one of Ruth's daughters. She and her mother do not get along. She resents her mother's continuing illness, but she also is angry because she doesn't think her mother spent enough time with her or loved her enough. When Ruth becomes seriously ill, Travis only gets her to return home and help care for her mother by promising to make her car payments. After Ruth dies, Deedee refuses to go to the funeral, but Raylene makes her.


Granny tells Bone stories about the family. She moves back and forth among the houses of Alma, Ruth, and her sisters. She chased Bone's real father out of town.


Grey is Bone's cousin, one of Alma's twin boys. Bone likes Grey better than Garvey because he has a "sweetness" to him. Grey becomes Bone's accomplice for breaking into the Woolworth's.

Lyle Parsons

Lyle Parsons is Reese's father and Anney's first husband. He wants to adopt Bone and take care of his family—which will grow when Anney has their baby—but he does not earn enough money at the gas station, and Anney must continue to work during her pregnancy. To earn extra money, he gets a job at the stock-car races, and one day while returning home he has a car accident and dies.

Shannon Pearl

Shannon Pearl is a short, fat, ugly, half-blind albino, whom most of the children dislike. Shannon's father runs a religious store and books performers for the gospel circuit, and her mother makes costumes for gospel singers. Bone recognizes her from the revivals and befriends her, drawn to Shannon's stubbornness and self-sufficiency, both traits that she values in herself. She also thinks that Shannon will be saintly on the inside, but she soon discovers that—again like herself—Shannon is filled with rage against everyone who has ever hurt her. Eventually, Bone and Pearl have an argument, but months later, Shannon invites Bone to a barbecue at her house. There, Bone witnesses Shannon's death when the can of lighter fluid Shannon is holding explodes.


Reese is Bone's half-sister, younger by about five years. Until Glen ruins it, she maintains a relationship with her loving grandmother. Glen does not beat or molest Reese as he does Bone; in fact, along with other characters, Bone recognizes the kindness with which he treats Reese. Like her sister, however, Reese is sexually precocious, masturbating to violent fantasies at a young age. Reese and Bone are close as children, but as they grow older, they do not get along as well. Reese resents the tension that Bone's predicament with Glen introduces into the family.

Uncle Travis

Uncle Travis is Ruth's husband. He is an alcoholic, but he loves his wife. Bone claims that she never saw him sober until she was seventeen and he had to have his liver and half his stomach removed.

Daddy Glen Waddell

Glen Waddell is Bone and Reese's stepfather. He comes from a completely different background than the Boatwrights: his family is middle-class, not poor; his mother does not work outside of the home; family members are professionals, not blue-collar workers or manual laborers. Glen's father owns a dairy; one brother is a lawyer, the other a dentist. Glen is the black sheep of the family, failing at all his jobs, and—according to his brothers—marrying trash. His family looks down upon him, tolerating his presence at family events rather than welcoming him. He constantly tries to win the love of his family—particularly his father—but is unable to do so. According to many of the characters in the novel, it is this lack of love that leads him to desperately want Anney to himself and to treat Bone so cruelly.

Glen first meets Anney through Uncle Earle, and he is immediately drawn to her. He courts Anney diligently, waiting two years for her to accept his proposal of marriage. Though he promises to be good to her and her children, he reneges on that promise through his first act of sexual abuse against Bone. As he continues to fail in providing for his "family," he takes out his rage on Bone. As he continually assaults her, she acts more diffidently to him; thus the cycle of violence is perpetuated and escalated.

Many of the Boatwrights distrust Glen, seeing that propensity for violence in him. When they learn of his treatment of Bone, the uncles brutally attack him. Glen, fearing that Bone will keep him from Anney, rapes her.

Uncle Wade Yarnall

Uncle Wade is Alma's husband. He is continually unfaithful to her.


Child Abuse

From almost the beginning of his relationship with Anney, Glen abuses Bone. His first sexual abuse of her takes place shortly after he marries her mother but it occurs when he is looking forward to the future and the impending birth of their child. This action gains significance because it counters arguments raised by characters in the novel that Glen takes out his frustrations on Bone and shows that Glen has the proclivity, despite circumstances, to abuse the young girl, then only about eight or nine years old. The ensuing abuse all takes place while he is angry, but he still tells Bone "over and over again," often while he is beating her, how much he loves her.

At first, Anney knows that Glen is physically beating Bone. She hears, through the closed bathroom door, his first brutal attack on her. She cleans up Bone after this and subsequent beatings, all the while adamantly denying what her husband is doing: "I was always getting hurt, it seemed, in ways Mama could not understand and I could not explain. Mama worried about how careless I was, how prone to accident I had become." Yet, though Anney does leave him several times, she always goes back to Glen. In order to justify her actions, she must place the blame on Bone. She tells Bone that she knows better than to make Glen angry, that she must be more careful, that Daddy Glen really does love her. Anney's words are fitful protests, but Bone, only a child, internalizes these messages and feels herself to be at fault for Daddy Glen's treatment of her. Toward the end of the novel, Bone comes to realize that it is not her fault. When her family finds out how Glen is beating her, her uncles turn on him. Though Bone is upset by the friction this causes between her and her mother, her family's actions validate her own feelings of hatred for Glen. She also realizes just how dangerous he is and that he will never change. For this reason, she tells Anney that she will never live with Glen again. Hearing this, Glen comes to see Bone, but when she continues to defy him—which she has never done to such an extent—Glen violently rapes her.


The importance of family is clearly demonstrated in Bastard Out of Carolina. The majority of the extended Boatwright family live in or around Greenville. The Boatwright sisters help each other out, look after each others' children, and serve more as surrogate mothers than aunts. Bone spends extended periods of time with her aunts Raylene and Ruth. Glen successfully places a wedge between Anney and her girls and the rest of the family by moving them to more distant areas in the town. The first time he does this, after the death of their child, Alma was "outraged he'd take us far away" but Glen is pleased because they will be on their own. He wants them to form a real family and rely on him, not on the aunts and uncles. He gets angry because the aunts are always telling the girls stories about the Boatwrights, which he attempts to counter with stories about his own family. In subsequent houses, they are sometimes so far away from the aunts that Bone and Reese cannot visit as often as they'd like.

Despite the genuine affection shared by the Boatwrights, Bone knows that they are not the "typical" American family. However, a healthy family is not seen anywhere in the novel. Travis and Ruth have raised children who demonstrate little care for their mother despite her fatal illness. Wade cheats on his wife Alma, and even tells her how disgusting she is. Carr, married and living in Baltimore, Maryland, still harbors feelings for Wade, whom she loved as a girl. Uncle Earle's wife leaves him, taking their three children with her, after she discovers his affairs. Thereafter, he forms relationships with much younger women, marries them, and soon thereafter deserts them.

Dysfunctional families, however, are not limited to the poor. Glen's parents and his brothers are middle-class. His parents and brothers live in nice homes, but they show no love for him nor genuine affection for each other. At family outings and parties, they constantly degrade Glen and his step-family, and the narrative clearly makes a link between this lack of familial love and Glen's violent rages against Bone. The Pearls, who also are much more financially stable than Bone's family, are similarly embedded in a web of family lies. Mrs. Pearl is unable to see the spiteful nature of her daughter Shannon, which contributes to her daughter's self-immolation.

Even the families that are tangential to the novel are not intact. Reese's father's family, the Parsons, has been destroyed. Grandmother Parsons has lost her three boys and is not close with her daughter. Her brothers are simply waiting for her to die so they can sell her land. Though Reese loves her grandmother, Daddy Glen ruins the relationship when he demands payoff money. The African-American family who share the apartment house with Alma lacks a father. He has gone up North to make money to support his family remaining in South Carolina.

Anney attempts to forge a nuclear family through her marriage to Glen, seeing in him a potential father for her girls, but this never happens. Instead of acting as a parental figure, Glen brings out feelings of rage, anger, and hatred in Bone. Yet, Bone continues to cling to the myth of the loving family, wanting "us to be like the families in the books in the library."

Poverty and Illegitimacy

Bone's family, as well as her extended kin, live in poverty. They exhibit all the stereotypical characteristics of those who inhabit a low socioeconomic class: too many children, worn-out homes and clothing, drinking, violence. Such an environment engenders instability. As Daddy Glen loses job after job, Bone's family moves so frequently that Anney stops even bothering to fully unpack. Bone and her sister are often hungry. Anney even prostitutes herself one evening in order to obtain money to buy her children food.

The poverty of the Boatwright clan causes Bone to feel shame. She knows that more well-off South Carolinians look down upon her, such as Daddy Glen's family and even Shannon Pearl. She understands that people are judged by how much money they have and that society deems poor people less legitimate than wealthier ones. This is graphically depicted when Aunt Alma and her children move into an apartment in a house shared with an African-American family, which draws the disgust of her husband and Glen. Alma, in deeper poverty since she left her philandering husband, has fallen as low as African Americans—the poor are as disenfranchised as African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights South.

Part of Bone's illegitimacy stems from this poverty, but her birth is truly an illegitimate one. Anney's mother is a fifteen-year-old unmarried mother. Bone's father's name does not even appear on her birth certificate; in fact, she never even learns it. Stamped across the document is the word illegitimate, hence the title of the novel. Anney recognizes the stigma that comes with this marking. For years, she tries to obtain a new, unblemished birth certificate for her daughter. She does not want her daughter to carry the mark of their class.


The desire for love among the members of the Boatwright clan is strong and pervasive. The characters demonstrate a belief in the transformative powers of love. Anney, an unwed mother at fifteen and a widow at nineteen, accepts Glen's marriage proposal only after she comes to believe that he will make a good, loving father to her children, but she still wants him to fulfill her own needs. As Alma points out, "She needs him like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth." Anney and Glen are both desperate to be loved, Glen because of his family's scorn for him and Anney because of her desertion by the fathers of her children. Their codependency ties them together, causing Anney to allow the continued abuse of her child and her eventual desertion of Bone in favor of Glen. Anney is tortured by her conflicting needs. As she tells Raylene on the day the uncles beat Glen for beating Bone, "Sometimes I hate myself, but I love him."

The fine line between love and hate is seen in Anney's feelings. It is also seen in her sister Alma, who wants to kill her husband after he insults her and rejects her sexually. As she tells Anney, "That's why I got to cut his throat…. If I didn't love the son of a bitch, I'd let him live forever."

Ruth's need for love is seen both in the birth of her children and her death. Anney tells Bone that Ruth saw each pregnancy as proof that a man loved her. When she knows that she is going to die she makes her husband promise to delay her funeral until all of the boys have returned home.

Bone manifests a need to love her family and be loved. She rarely enunciates her feelings to her family, however. When she tells her favorite Uncle Earle that she loves him it is during a rare moment that she feels "fiercely proud, of him, and of myself"—in essence, she is proud of her family despite what others may think of them. She also yearns for a normal family love—though she knows this is impossible—"when I just wanted Daddy Glen to love me like the father in Robinson Crusoe." Despite the rampant abuse and denial that exists in her family, she still believes in the power of love. "[L]ove would make me beautiful:" she thinks, "a father's love would purify my heart, turn my bitter soul sweet, and light my Cherokee eyes."


Through her family morals and through Daddy Glen, Bone is introduced to human sexuality at a young age. She is only about eight or nine years old the first time Glen sexually abuses her, masturbating against her body. Though Bone "knew what it was under his hand … this was a mystery, scary and hard." Daddy Glen and Anney have sex often, which Anney's young daughters are aware of. Bone agrees with Reese's assessment, that it is "mushy," but she also recognizes the power in sex. "Was that what Daddy Glen had been doing to me in the parking lot?" she wonders. Before she is ten years old, Bone has started masturbating. Her first sexual fantasies revolve around violence. She imagines that she is tied up while a fire rages around. Her fantasies evolve, and she masturbates while imagining that people are watching Daddy Glen beat her. As Glen continues to beat her with more force and more regularity, Bone's sexual fantasies become even more violent and complex. By the time she is ten years old, Bone already equates sex with violence and shame. Her shame and confusion is such that when Aunt Ruth asks her if Daddy Glen has ever sexually abused her, she says no.

Reese, growing up in the same environment, also starts masturbating at a young age. Like Bone, Reese makes up violent fantasies to go along with her masturbation. Bone sees her one afternoon enacting a scene in which she is attacked and raped. Watching her younger sister, Bone experiences her own sexual fantasy in which someone has beaten her, tied her to a tree, gagged her, and left her to starve. Bone orgasms while "pushing my thighs into the rough bark," while in the bed below her, "Reese pushed her hips into the leaves."

In the culture, children learn about and have sex at a young age. Anney is only fourteen years old when she becomes pregnant with Bone. As Bone points out, there is even a joke about it: "What's a South Carolina virgin? 'At's a ten-year-old can run fast." However, Bone's sexual curiosity is never turned outward. Even by the time she is twelve, she has demonstrated no interest in boys her age. At Aunt Ruth's funeral, her cousin Butch kisses her and uses his tongue. Bone is completely surprised at this behavior and pulls away "in surprise." This scene, though brief and underscored by Butch's order to not make "'more out of this than there is,'" reminds the reader that for the Boatwrights and particularly for Bone, all sex is deviant.

Topics for Further Study

  • Imagine that you are Bone and you have just finished writing this book. You want to get in touch with Anney and tell her how you feel about your past and about her. Write a letter to Anney.
  • Most of the people around them view the Boatwrights as useless and shiftless. What positive attributes do the Boatwrights demonstrate? Write a few paragraphs countering the argument that the Boatwrights are simply poor, white trash.
  • Conduct research to find out more about how child abuse affects the family members involved and the victim. After you have finished your research, assess whether or not Bone and Anney are realistically drawn characters.
  • Counselors often use creative outlets, such as art therapy, to help their patients heal from the trauma of sexual and physical abuse. What kind of art do you think Bone would create to express her feelings about what has happened to her in the past? Describe what a piece of Bone's work might look like.
  • Bone narrates her story some years later, when she is at least past the age of seventeen. Judging from Bone's voice and the perceptions and wisdom she holds, how old do you think Bone is when she tells her story? Explain your answer.
  • Write a short paper explaining why Bone might have decided to share her story and what she hopes to accomplish by doing so.



Bone's birth certificate is the primary symbol of the novel. Stamped with the word illegitimate, it decries the circumstances of Bone's birth. Symbolically, as long as the birth certificate takes that form, Bone is unable to escape her past history and her social illegitimacy. At the end of the novel, however, Bone must start her life over. Though this choice is forced upon her by Anney's desertion and by her own realization that "the child I had been was gone with the child she [Anney] had been," it still is a time of rebirth, a transformation physically signified by the birth certificate that Anney has somehow managed to obtain for her—one that lacks that accusatory and demeaning word.

The novel abounds with other symbols. The physical hunger that Bone feels when her family does not have enough to eat is a physical reflection of her spiritual hunger. She wants what other people seem to have: the ability to buy trinkets and candy at Woolworth, a grandmother with her hair in braids instead of hanging messily down her back, a house with a white picket fence. Bone notes that she feels a "dizzy desperate hunger edged with hatred and an aching lust to hurt somebody back." She wonders if this is the same hunger that causes her cousin Tommy Lee to steal money from his mother. She also feels this hunger "swell" when they visit Daddy Glen's family, who are lawyers and dentists, who have wives who stay home instead of working. This barrenness is also symbolically reflected in Bone's environment. The houses that Daddy Glen chooses for them are all cheap, dismal imitations of his family's houses. "The lawns were dry, with coarse straggly grass and scattered patches of rocky ground. There were never any trees or bushes … the houses always looked naked and abandoned." As Bone's cousin Temple astutely points out, Daddy Glen is "always finding your houses where it looks like nobody ever really wanted to live."

Point of View

The story is told from the first-person point of view of Bone. Because she relates her tale an undisclosed number of years after it happened, her voice is able to reflect a woman's maturity as well as an education. Through the use of such a narrative voice, Allison is able to home in on the true child's voice and experience, while at the same time reflect on the larger issues raised by the novel, such as poverty, social stigma, and the lure of religion. Allison's narrative includes pieces of information that Bone would not have thought of at the time, particularly a knowledge of her extended family's activities and motivations. The novel places Bone in the position of carefully looking back at the past, attempting to make sense of it in her effort to heal herself. The crucial question Bone tries to answer through her telling of the story is why her mother made the choices that she did, but she is unable to do so, perhaps because she—along with many readers—can never truly understand Anney's decision.


The story takes place in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1955, which Bone describes as "the most beautiful place in the world." The small-town southern setting has a strong influence on the story, for the Boatwrights and their kin are typical "white trash" as Bone identifies them upon reading Gone with the Wind. They epitomize the stereotypical poor white southerner: undereducated, alcoholic, and prone to violence and loose morals.

The physical setting of the South enhances Bone's story, for the heat is terribly oppressive. Bone describes a landscape filled with burned grass and baked dirt, and porches where the family sit holding large glasses of iced tea and damp hand towels. However, the South is oppressive in other ways. The story takes place at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and African Americans are hardly present, depicting the reality of segregation. The exception is the family with whom Aunt Alma and her children briefly share an apartment house. This momentary glimpse provides a convincing portrait of race relations. Alma's husband is displeased that his children are living side by side with African Americans, and Bone's cousin calls the family "niggers" and is proud that the children seem scared of him. For her part, Bone acknowledges that she has never had a normal conversation with an African American and feels nervous and shy around the children. The incident also shows the economic plight of African Americans. The father is absent from the family, instead working in the North where he can earn much more money.


Many critics have pointed out Allison's deftness at capturing the rhythms of southern speech without resorting to the use of dialect. Her dialogue rings true and reflects the ungrammatical speech of the poorer American. Allison discussed her use of language in an interview she gave to Minnie Bruce Pratt for The Progressive:

When I really started working on the writing of the language, I discovered that there is this conventional way to frame dialect on the page. Now, the language rhythms of the people I am writing about come entirely from gospel music, country music, and the church. But the way it is generally written down [is] barely intelligible and has an aura of stupid about it. And that I had to absolutely refuse, because the people whose voices I am using are very smart people. They are simply uneducated.

Allison creates a distinctive use of language in the novel, one unlike other novels that take place among southerners and rely on the same type of transliteration of words, such as "Ah" for "I." For instance, she uses the word ain't and insists on the repetition of adjectives, as in Uncle Earle's "black black hair" and "black black heart."

Historical Context

A Prosperous Nation?

For many Americans, the 1950s was a decade of economic prosperity. Unemployment and inflation remained low, generally below 5 percent. By the middle of the decade, more than 60 percent of Americans earned a middle-class income, which at that time was a salary between $3,000 and $10,000 a year. The number of homeowners increased by over 21 million during this decade, and people enjoyed material comforts and the benefits of household inventions and improvements. Government programs benefited many Americans. Social security and unemployment benefits also expanded in the mid-1950s, and the minimum wage increased. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also supported the largest increase in educational spending up to that time.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: A 1957 study determines that around forty million mericans live near or below the poverty line of $3,000 for a family four.

    Today: In 1995, 36.4 million Americans, which includes 27.5 million families, live in poverty. The average income cutoff level for a family of four at the poverty level is $15,569.
  • 1950s: Throughout the decade, an average of sixty-three percent of the U.S. population considers themselves to be church members. In 1958, 109 million Americans have an official religious affiliation.

    Today: In 1998, seventy percent of Americans claim to be members of a church or synagogue. Forty percent have attended a church or synagogue within the last week.
  • 1950s: By the end of the decade, thirty-nine percent of all women with children ages six to seventeen work for wages outside the home. Around 6.6 million women with children ages seventeen and under work outside of the home.

    Today: In the early part of the decade, seventy-one percent of married women hold jobs outside the home. Around 18.2 million women with children ages seventeen and under work outside of the home.
  • 1950s: The birthrate in 1957 is 4.3 million, or 25.3 births per 1,000 Americans.

    Today: The birthrate in 1997 is 3.8 million, or 14.6 births per 1,000 Americans.
  • 1950s: The average age for the first marriage for women is twenty. The average age for men is almost twenty-three.

    Today: The average age for the first marriage for women is twenty-four. The average age for men is almost twenty-six.
  • 1950s: By the end of the decade, 125 million Americans live in urban areas and 54 million Americans live in rural areas. Throughout the decade, rural population drops by seventeen percent with an average of 1.4 million rural dwellers leaving each year for higher-paying jobs in cities.

    Today: Today, the majority of Americans—over seventy-five percent—live in urban areas.

Nearly 40 million Americans, however, lived near or below the poverty line of $3,000 for a family of four, as determined by a 1957 study. As the middle class saw their incomes rise, poor Americans were increasingly earning a lesser portion of the nation's wealth. This was particularly true for African Americans and members of minority groups. Of poor Americans, almost one half lived in rural areas and suffered from inadequate medical care and a lack of education.

The South

Many rural Southerners moved to cities to search of a better life and higher paying jobs. African Americans made up the single largest group in the rural-to-urban movement. In a continuation of the Great Migration, which had begun during World War II, many African Americans left the South to find work in the industrial North. This movement peaked in the mid-1950s, when some northern cities saw their African-American population growing by about 2,000 each week.

A religious revival took place in the late 1950s, but was more pronounced in the South where many people attended outdoor evangelical revivals. The minister Billy Graham founded his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950, which promoted crusades, developed radio and television programs, and produced films.

Women in the 1950s

Many women in the 1950s stayed at home and took care of their families and households, though a large percentage worked outside of the home, often part-time. It had long been common for mothers of poor families to work for wages, but an increasing number of women joining the workforce were middle-class mothers. In general, women often faced discrimination and exploitation both at home and at work. Women often held jobs that were either part-time or low-level with little chance of career advancement. Fewer women were attending college, as well. Many women's colleges either closed during the decade or became coeducational institutions.

The Fledgling Civil Rights Movement

Protest movements took place in the 1950s to try to change discriminatory racial practices. In 1955, African-American citizens in Montgomery, Alabama, launched a bus boycott in an attempt to end segregation on public transportation. For almost a year, thousands of African Americans stopped riding the buses. In 1956, the Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional. This struggle not only integrated the bus system, but it also brought a new civil rights leader to the forefront: Martin Luther King, Jr. Two years earlier, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in the monumental decision Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka that the segregation of school by race was unconstitutional. As a result of this decision, states throughout the South moved to desegregate their schools—most unwillingly, however.

A Society of Conformity

The 1950s society was generally dominated by the idea of conformity. For instance, in the suburbs, houses looked the same on the outside and had the same floor plan on the inside. Some teenagers challenged this conformity through literature that mocked the hypocritical adult world, as well as through rock 'n' roll, which many parents disliked. Adults also challenged the conformity of American life. John Kenneth Galbraith argued in his 1958 book An Affluent Society that Americans were ignoring pressing social issues in their pursuit of material possessions and comfort. A group of writers and poets known as the Beats challenged literary and lifestyle conventions of the middle class. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, one of the best-known Beat works, celebrated the search for individual identity. Other novelists such as Ralph Ellison discussed the experiences of those Americans who faced poverty and discrimination.

Critical Overview

Several years before the 1992 publication of Bastard Out of Carolina Allison had already established herself as a writer outside of the mainstream; her 1988 collection Trash won the Lambda Literary award for best lesbian book. Bastard Out of Carolina was her first novel and considered to be her "crossover" book. It drew immediate attention from critics and readers. George Garrett wrote in his review for The New York Times, "When I finished reading Bastard Out of Carolina I wanted to blow a bugle to alert the reading public that a wonderful work of fiction by a major new talent has arrived on the scene." That year as well, the book was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award.

Some reviewers saw Bastard Out of Carolina as a "southern" novel, rich in the gothic tradition of the grotesque and populated with a host of eccentric archetypes. Indeed, in Allison's novel are certain aspects strongly identified with the South, such as a tradition of oral storytelling, a marked interest in family history and lore, the power of evan-gelical religion, and the class system and social status.

Randall Kenan, however, noted that Allison "skates uncomfortably near the thin ice of stereotype, a feat at once worrisome and brave." Kenan described the southern stereotypes: "poor white trash; liquored-up, malevolent, unemployed, undereducated, country-music-listening, oversexed, foul-tempered men; and long-suffering, quickly aging, overly fertile, too-young-marrying, hard-headed women." Kenan found that "[W]hen Allison succeeds [in her characterization], she succeeds winningly." He particularly felt that Uncle Earle, Raylene, and Bone came across convincingly. Other characters—Anney, Glen, Reese, the cousins—hardly "ever come off as more than characters from a country music song." Garrett, however, would argue with this assertion; he found that the characters are "each distinct and memorable, each a recognizable physical presence."

Many critics also focused on the sexual aspect of the novel, which forms one of the major issues of Bone's young life. The character Bone had earlier appeared in Allison's short stories collected in Trash, in which the young sexually abused girl initiates particularly masochistic forms of masturbation. For Allison, writing is closely tied to her lesbian identity, feminism, and politics. She has stated, "It is only as the child of my class and my unique family background that I have been able to … regain a sense of why I believe in activism, why self-revelation is so important for lesbians." Deborah Horvitz, in an article published in Contemporary Literature, takes up this theme. She argues that the abused Bone needs to integrate the past traumas in order to move into the future. Horvitz discusses ways that Bone attempts to do this: "She attempts to transform her nightmare into narrative as a means of coping with what she considers to be her 'damaged' and 'ruined' body, but that proves impossible since her stories themselves, along with her desires, wishes, and passions, are entrenched in sadomasochism." Only when everyone surrounding Bone acknowledges the abuse can Bone take steps to heal. Writes Horvitz, "At the close of the novel, Ruth Anne, though far from happy, is finally safe. Anney 'wakes up' to the truth regarding Glen's cruelty and simultaneously confronts her own inability to leave him. Only then can she leave Bone safely within Raylene's protection."

Allison early on acknowledged the autobiographical element in the novel. She had been sexually abused by her stepfather from the ages of five to eleven. In an interview with Lynn Karpen in The New York Times Book Review, Allison revealed that many of the introductory details are largely autobiographical, and further, that "a lot of the novel is based on real experience, but not the entire thing. The characters are modeled on members of my family and on stories I heard when I was growing up." However, Vince Aletti, writing in the Voice Literary Supplement, pointed out that even "if [the novel] is rooted in autobiography, it never takes on the obsessive tone of a confessional or the crusading fervor of an expose." Horvitz maintained that "in order to appreciate the importance of Bone's 'remembering' her past, one must 'read' her story within the context of Allison's life as, in her other work, she encourages us to do…. Allison transforms actual and remembered trauma into art."

On many levels, whether personal, biographical, or narrative, Bastard Out of Carolina is a resounding success. Kenan applauded the work as "a singular and important act of art and courage." Amber Hollibaugh, writing in Women's Review of Books, took an even more personal approach: "This is a book I had dreamed of reading since I first discovered Allison's writing … in the late seventies…. She is right to say that her novel isn't easy to read, but neither are our lives. This is a book as consequential as our own stories: a novel that could save a life."


Rena Korb

Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses Bone's self-perception and how sexual abuse shapes her character.

Dorothy Allison's powerful first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, drew enthusiastic response from readers and critics alike. Nominated for the National Book Award, the book and its success brought the author, previously known for her lesbian writing, into the mainstream. Bastard Out of Carolina, which depicts issues uncomfortable to some readers, such as the sexual molestation of children and preadolescents' violent masturbatory fantasies, has also had its share of controversy. When Angelica Houston faithfully reproduced Bone's story on film for a cable network, she was told to edit or it would not air; Houston did neither, instead selling it to another channel. Maine's Supreme Court ruled that local school boards could keep the book from being taught, a decision that has led to a counter-group determined to keep the novel in school libraries. Allison is equally outspoken; she makes no attempt to hide the fact that the novel is partially autobiographical, based on the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her stepfather from age five to age eleven. Her memoir/meditation Two or Three Things I Know for Sure presents a more personal discussion of the "Boatwright" family, particularly her mother, whom she introduces in Bastard Out of Carolina.

Readers respond to Bastard Out of Carolina so positively for myriad reasons. Allison raises a wealth of material and issues, so the reader is likely to find resonance in the novel. It is supremely well written. Allison also presents as a major theme the human search for love and acceptance, a topic that many people can understand and appreciate. At the time of its publication, critics responded to many of these attributes. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly talks about "Allison's remarkable country voice" and the way she "portrays [her 'white trash' characters] … with understanding and love." In the New Statesman and Society, Elizabeth Young discusses Allison's hope "to illuminate aspects of a class that has been neglected and misunderstood." George Garrett, writing for The New York Times Book Review, praises specific characterization, analyzes the function of death in the novel, and raises ideas of literary symbolism. These reviewers also touch upon the crux of the novel: the abuse of Bone—mental, physical, and sexual. Young accurately notes that at one level, "the book traces the ways in which Bone's sexuality is twisted by abuse." Garrett comments that "the most inconceivable—and yet here the most clear—rendering is of how a mother would allow such abuse and how a child could learn to live with it." Anney's continuous assignment of blame for the abuse to Bone and her final decision at novel's end raises questions that perhaps no one can answer: How can a mother treat a child as Anney treats Bone? How can a mother stay with a man who has so severely damaged her child? Allison's exploration of these questions—Bone's attempts to comprehend her past and how it will affect her future—are finely-wrought and haunting.

On a basic level, Bastard Out of Carolina convincingly portrays a poor, white, "trashy" southern family living in the 1950s. The Boatwright clan is filled with women who pop out one baby after another, men who spend their lives drunk and unfaithful and in and out of jail, and undereducated children who will grow up to replicate their parents. Aunt Alma keeps a family scrapbook. What predominates, however, are the newspaper headlines and photographs detailing the legal and social trouble that surround the Boatwrights. Bone knows that Alma's "favorite is the four-page spread the Greenville News did when Uncle Earle's convertible smashed into the barbershop." Bone thinks that everyone in the scrapbook looks "moon-eyed, rigid, openmouthed, and stupid," and she recognizes her clan membership when her own picture earns a place in the scrapbook. The photograph captures her leaving the hospital after Daddy Glen has raped her. "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 with blood. Like a Boatwright all right—it wasn't all my blood."

In one scene, brief though it is, Uncle Earle gives voice to the feelings of rebellion and self-respect that the degradations of society can engender. Bone is visiting Earle in jail, and he shows her the leather wallet he has engraved using a mallet and razor blades.

"They count 'em—the punches, the blades. If the count doesn't match at the end of the afternoon, we don't get out for dinner. Of course, sometimes they count wrong, and sometimes the razors break." He wiped sweat on his jeans and brought his hand up, palm open. A slender metal blade glinted in the sunlight.

"They think they so smart." He spit in the direction of the fence…. Only his eyes were the same, dark and full of pain. Now those eyes burned in the direction of the guards walking the other side of the fence.

"They think they so damn smart."

My heart seemed to swell in my breast. His hand wiped again at his jeans, and I knew the blade was gone. He was my uncle.

In just a few lines, Allison succinctly demonstrates the disenfranchising of Bone and people of her class; they don't belong, they are, in fact, worthless. "We're smart, I thought. We're smarter than you think we are." She suddenly feels "mean and powerful and proud of all of us."

Such prideful feelings do not last long, however. For Bone clearly understands that other people in southern society look down upon the Boatwrights: they are good for nothing, knowing little and contributing less to society—except for more children they can't afford to properly care for. Anney rebels against this distinction, but she fulfills it nonetheless when she becomes an unwed mother at the age of fifteen. Bone's birth certificate is stamped with the word "illegitimate," which symbolizes for Anney her treatment at the hands of the rigid southern class system.

Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she'd ever spent bent over other people's 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.

Anney's numerous attempts to obtain an unblemished birth certificate form a pattern in the novel. At the novel's close, a clean birth certificate is all she can offer Bone. In this action, she attempts to communicate to her daughter that, despite all that has happened, she is a decent person. Bone need not bear the mark of illegitimacy, both through her birth and through her class, that society wants to bestow upon her.

Anney fails in her attempt to raise up the family through her marriage to Glen. His complete inability to hold a job coupled with his insistence on independence from her family actually bring Anney and her daughters to greater financial instability. Instead of trying to fight the social system that labels them as no good, Anney turns to a lifelong habit of denying the truth. At a young age, her daughters learn to turn bill collectors away with the lie that their mama is not at home.

"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 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.

Attacks against Bone come from even closer sources. Daddy Glen's family are well-established members of the middle class, professional people who live in clean, well-kept homes that the wives stay home and maintain. At a family gathering, Bone overhears a conversation between Glen's brothers.

"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…."

I pushed my black hair out of my eyes and looked in at one of my wide-mouthed cousins in a white dress with eyelet sleeves looking back at me, scratching her nose and staring like I was some elephant in a zoo—something dumb and ugly and impervious to hurt.

Bone reads the novel Gone with the Wind and identifies with the degraded and despised Slattery family. "Emma Slattery, I thought. That's who I'd be, that's who we were…. 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."

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1986) by Carolyn Chute tells the story of a poor, uneducated family from the backwoods of Maine.
  • In Ursula Hegi's novel The Salt Dancers (1985) forty-one-year-old Julia, haunted by memories of her abusive father and the mother who abandoned her, returns home to see her father after twenty-three years. Unmarried and pregnant, Julia believes she must come to terms with her past in order to nurture her own child.
  • One or Two Things I Know for Sure (1995) is Dorothy Allison's memoir of her family and childhood. The text draws on a spoken word performance and is embellished by photographs.
  • Southern writer Bobbie Ann Mason's memoir, Clear Springs (1999), recounts the author's childhood growing up in rural Kentucky and the effect that her past had on her career as a writer.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is the story of a young girl's awakening to the racial prejudice of the 1930s South.
  • Allison's second novel, Cavedweller (1999), tells the story of Delia Byrd who returns to the South to be a mother to her children years after leaving them in the hands of her abusive husband.

Because of the physical and sexual abuse that Daddy Glen heaps upon her, Bone has an even greater reason to feel shame. Judith Herman describes the victim of child abuse in Trauma and Recovery: "The child … develops the belief that she is somehow responsible for the crimes of her abusers. Simply by virtue of her existence on earth, she believes that she has driven the most powerful people in her world to do terrible things." In Bone's case, this shame is reinforced by the person she loves most in the world: her mother. After witnessing one of Glen's earliest beatings of Bone, Anney gathers her daughter in her arms. "'Baby,' she called me. 'Oh, girl. Oh, honey, Baby, what did you do? What did you do?'" With these words Anney establishes a convincing pattern of blame. By blaming her child, however, Anney is able to escape accepting any personal responsibility. She constantly tells herself and others that Daddy Glen really does love Bone as an explanation of why she stays with him. Bone comes to accept her mother's words, a belief underscored by Anney's complicity in the beatings. "When Daddy Glen beat me there was always a reason, and Mama would stand right outside the bathroom door [italics mine]…. I knew 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." She later confides, "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." Throughout the novel, she reinforces these feelings, at times noting that she is "nasty, willful, stupid, ugly" and again, that she is at fault for the beatings; "I made him mad. I did."

Prior to even entering puberty, Bone begins to masturbate with regularity. She develops perverse and sadomasochistic fantasies. She masturbates while imagining that she is about to burn to death in a fire or that an audience is watching Glen beat her. Her fantasies, however, which she acknowledges got "more violent and more complicated," can be seen as her attempt to take control of a situation that essentially renders her helpless. By masturbating to the "story I told myself about it [the beatings]" Bone is attempting to take ownership of her own body and the trials it undergoes. As quoted in Deborah T. Meem's article in Feminist Writers, Allison acknowledged as an adult, "Putting those stories down on paper … [enables Allison] to shape my life outside my terrors and helplessness, to make it visible and real in a tangible way." Meem further concludes, "Allison insists on the … equation Self-revelation = Life = Survival." Until Bone is able share her experience, she will not assert control.

After the uncles beat Glen following Ruth's funeral, Bone finally comes to accept the truth: "I can't go back to live with Daddy Glen," she tells Anney. Perhaps hearing her mother that day made her realize how helpless Anney was in the face of her desperate love for Glen—and how much danger that put Bone in. Anney told her sister, "I've just wanted it to be all right…. For so long, I've just hoped and prayed, dreamed and pretended [italics mine]. I've hung on, just hung on." With these words come Anney's only acknowledgment of the delusional world that she has created around her family. Still, she returns to this false world of promise as the shock of the brutal events wears off. She swears to Bone, "I won't go back until I know you're gonna be safe," but even after she witnesses the aftermath of Glen's brutal rape of her daughter, Anney can't reject him. Significantly as well, she will not acknowledge her own culpability. With the bloody and beaten Bone in the car watching, Anney holds Glen's head to her belly and pleads, "Help me, God,… Help me." Anney turns over responsibility for what has happened to a greater power, which Bone recognizes as a weakness. "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?"

Bone's ultimate answer in the novel is unclear. As she acknowledges, "I didn't understand," but she also admits that "I didn't want to understand. Seeing Mama hurt me almost as bad as not seeing her had." For the first time, Bone looks at her mother as a separate being, which she later must do to tell this story. "Fourteen and terrified, fifteen and a mother, just past twenty-one when she married Glen." She recognizes her mother's strength, shame, desperation, and determination, neither applauding Anney for these attributes nor castigating her. Yet, at the very end of the novel Aunt Raylene comes to her. "I let her touch my shoulder, let my head tilt to lean against her, trusting her arm and her love." With this simple action, Bone wordlessly, yet not maliciously, indicts her mother. At the same time, she demonstrates that, despite all the violence and disappointment enacted upon her, she still holds faith in the redemption and power of love.

Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

Randall Kenan

In the following review of Bastard Out of Carolina, Kenan says that while Allison's characters and plot sometimes cross into stereotype, she often exhibits fine skill nonetheless.

Flannery O'Connor once observed of the "Southern School" of writing, in an essay called "The Fiction Writer and His Country," that "more often the term conjures up an image of Gothic mon-strosities and the idea of a preoccupation with everything deformed and grotesque. Most of us are considered, I believe, to be unhappy combinations of Poe and Erskine Caldwell." Thirty-odd years later, despite the sparkling research centers, black Congressmen, skyscrapers galore and designer water by the barrelful, Southern writers are still haunted by these eccentric archetypes. And few works are more entrenched in that mythos than Dorothy Allison's latest effort, Bastard Out of Carolina.

This is not to say that her novel is hackneyed or grotesque; rather that, in dealing with the milieu Allison has chosen—poor white folk in small-town South Carolina of the mid-fifties—she skates uncomfortably near the thin ice of stereotype, a feat at once worrisome and brave.

Brave because in so many ways this far more bitter than sweet Bildungsroman's real subject is not "Trash" (the name of Allison's prize-winning collection of stories) but the explosive and often difficult to understand world of child abuse; it is also a Faulknerianly bold attempt to plumb the depths of one girl's emotional acceptance, initially, of such cruelty. Yet so closely linked to this story is a particular environment that engenders this particular tragedy that when this environment fails to convince thoroughly, Allison's overarching theme comes dangerously close to running aground. Luckily, she pilots her ship if not always masterfully, often with fine skill.

In this world where "black walnut trees dropped their green-black fuzzy bulbs," we have Ruth Anne (Bone) Boatwright, a girl-child born out of wedlock, whose daddy was run out of town by her grandmother just before Bone was born. Bone's mother, Anney, bore the child at 15; at 19 poor Anney had married another man, had his child (Reese), and lost him in a freak accident ("'That's a handsome boy' one of the pickers kept telling the highway patrolman. 'He wasn't doing nothing wrong, just coming along the road in the rain'"); and by 22 she had married yet again. Such is the world of the Boatwright clan.

The Boatwrights—as Bone tells us in this first-person novel—are devilish, fun-loving, obstreperous, dirt poor, violent. Bone's three uncles are hell-raising fools who "had all gone to jail for causing other men serious damage." Liquor, women, gambling, brawling make up their nights and most of their days. Bone's Boatwright aunts—Alma, Raylene, Ruth, Carr—band together under the caustic but loving wing of their mother and are all (except one) caught in that endless tension between love of a no-good man and rearing up their respective younguns, fighting off loneliness and hardship and the outside world's dim view of their affairs, aided only by grit, humor and each other. Add on the husbands and a passel of cousins and you can readily imagine this family populating a small county with ease.

Hence the danger. The stereotype of poor white trash: liquored-up, malevolent, unemployed, undereducated, country-music-listening, oversexed, foul-tempered men; and long-suffering, quickly aging, overly fertile, too-young-marrying, hardheaded women. Of course, all stereotypes derive from some root of truth, but for the most part this band of sorry souls lacks the piss and vinegar, the quirkiness and subtleness, the unpredictability and the balm one truly encounters among farmers, mechanics, factory workers and waitresses who populate the Carolinas. Early on, it becomes clear that Allison is intimately involved with that world—she brings so much of her small postage stamp of Greenville, South Carolina, to life—but she seems to trust too often that we will see the charm, the hard faith and the rationale with which these folk operate and which operates them.

When Allison succeeds, she succeeds winningly. Uncle Earle in particular comes vividly to life. "Earle was good with a hammer or a saw, and magical with a pickax. He drove a truck like he was making love to the gears and carried a seven-inch pigsticker in the side pocket of his reinforced painter's pants … Moreover, Earle had a gift for charming people—men or women." Allison demonstrates throughout the novel how complex a character Earle is, generous and devoted to his family, coming through when he can; but violent to a deadly fault, addicted to teenage girls and of course overly fond of whiskey.

Another character painted with a fine brush is Anney's older sister, Raylene, who had "always been different from her sisters." Something of a recluse, never married, she lives alone way off by the river, making her living by selling canned vegetables, fruit, chow-chow and whiskey, and by fishing refuse from the river and recycling it after a fashion. "'Trash rises,' Aunt Raylene joked the first afternoon I spent with her. 'Out here where no one can mess with it, trash rises all the time.' " Direct, no-nonsensical and disciplined, she has unexpected resources of compassion and a particularly painful secret—more so than her obvious lesbianism—which creeps out near the novel's end.

By drawing these characters so freshly, Allison gives us two beacons in an otherwise dim constellation for little Bone Boatwright. Neither her grandmother—witty, lovable and outrageous, though never fully seen; nor her mother, Anney, a wispy woman of mindless devotion who flickers in and out of focus, though rendered sharply in her annual bid to get "illegitimate" off Bone's birth certificate and in the annals of her coming to wed Glen Waddell; nor Bone's sister Reese; nor her bad cousins ever come off as more than characters from a country music song.

Nonetheless, Bone herself does march across these pages as more than a Southern-styled Dickensian bastard. Many of her scenes—after she has attained adolescence—are made quite literally of fire. Her stormy relationship with Shannon Pearl, a child so ugly the sight of her made someone exclaim, "That child is a shock to the digestion," is at first a case study in the real behavior of young girls, and ends in an unforgettable scene of horror. Another scene, in which Bone acts out her internalized rage by breaking into Woolworth's after dark, makes the reader fear for the child. And a particularly touching episode in which she visits her Uncle Earle at the "county farm" is perhaps the most moving and deftly handled of all. Brief, poignant, delicate, it comes close to making impalpable emotions palpable.

Of course, the most devastatingly real scenes are those between Bone and "Daddy Glen." Here, Allison is at her most convincing and disturbing. In fact, the scenes and their aftermath are so brutal one wants not to believe them—though a cursory glance at the newspaper or a local newscast confirms that as much and worse is done to children daily. And the most inconceivable—and yet here the most clear—rendering is of how a mother would allow such abuse and how a child could learn to live with it. And, ultimately, how it affects her.

Another of the key fashions in which Allison lets us know she knows from whence she writes is the way death functions in the novel—very like the way it functions in Southern life: to shape and structure the surrounding lives. The death of Bone's first stepfather moves her mother to marry the handsome, though vaguely menacing, Glen; the stillbirth of Anney and Glen's first child (and Anney's inability to have another) leads to Glen's increasing hostility toward Bone; the death of Bone's close friend Shannon leads to her closer and important relationship with hard-willed Aunt Raylene; the dying, death and funeral of Aunt Ruth sets the stage for Glen's exposure to the wider family as a child abuser; the death of Aunt Alma's baby—born with a bad heart—leads to her pyrotechnic mental collapse and to staging the novel's Roman candle of an ending, which—to Allison's credit—is handled not with melodrama, as it could easily have been, but with a calm and quiet understatement that goes far beneath the nauseating violence, and deeply into the complex skeins of love and hate and shame that compel and contort the hearts of those inextricably bound by both blood and heinous sin. Not only does the heart break during these final scenes but the mind expands to understand in a dark new way why the abused make the hard choices they often do; to understand a bit more the strange logic of the heart in the face of such unbelievable cruelty.

Perhaps it's a bit mandarin or churlish to demand that the parts always add up to the sum, for in this case the parts Dorothy Allison has created seem so flinty and true they sing loudly enough on their own. For this reason—pecan pie and gospel music, snuff-dipping grannies and kissing cousins notwithstanding—Bastard Out of Carolina is a singular and important act of art and courage.

Source: Randall Kenan, "Sorrow's Child," in Nation, Vol. 255, No. 22, December 28, 1992, pp. 815-16.

Kimberly G. Allen

In the following brief review, Allen posits that Allen creates "a rich sense of family" in Bastard Out of Carolina.

Set in the rural South, this tale centers around the Boatwright family, a proud and closeknit clan known for their drinking, fighting, and womanizing. Nicknamed Bone by her Uncle Earle, Ruth Anne is the bastard child of Anney Boatwright, who has fought tirelessly to legitimize her child. When she marries Glen, a man from a good family, it appears that her prayers have been answered. However, Anney suffers a miscarriage and Glen begins drifting. He develops a contentious relationship with Bone and then begins taking sexual liberties with her. Embarrassed and unwilling to report these unwanted advances, Bone bottles them up and acts out her confusion and shame. Unaware of her husband's abusive behavior, Anney stands by her man. Eventually, a violent encounter wrests Bone away from her stepfather. In this first novel, Allison creates a rich sense of family and portrays the psychology of a sexually abused child with sensitivity and insight.

Source: Kimberly G. Allen, Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, in Library Journal, Vol. 117, No. 4, March 1, 1992, p. 116.


Aletti, Vince, Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, in Voice Literary Supplement, June 1992, p. 7.

Garrett, George, "No Wonder People Got Crazy as They Grew Up," in The New York Times, July 5, 1992, p. 3.

Herman, Judith Lewis, Trauma and Recovery, Basic Books, 1992.

Hollibaugh, Amber, Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, in Women's Review of Books, July 1992, p. 15.

Horvitz, Deborah, "'Sadism Demands a Story:' Oedipus, Feminism, and Sexuality in Gayl Jones's 'Corregidora' and Dorothy Allison's 'Bastard Out of Carolina,'" in Contemporary Literature, Volume 39, No. 2, Summer 1998, p. 238.

Jetter, Alexis, Interview with Allison in The New York Times Magazine, December 17, 1995, p. 54.

Karpen, Lynn, Interview with Allison in The New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1994, p. 54.

Kenan, Randall, Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, in The Nation, December 28, 1992, p. 815.

Meem, Deborah, "Dorothy Allison: Overview," in Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St. James Press, 1996.

Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, in Publishers Weekly, January 27, 1992, p. 88.

Young, Elizabeth, Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, in New Statesman and Society, January 8, 1993, p. 41.

For Further Study

Jetter, Alexis, "The Roseanne of Literature," in the New York Times Magazine, December 17, 1995, p. 54.

The author profiles Dorothy Allison's background.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce, Interview with Dorothy Allison in the Progressive, July 1995, p. 30.

The author conducts an in-depth interview with Allison, focusing on her career and educational background and her views on politics and feminism.