“The Boatwright family of Greenville County, South Carolina, is a tight-knit clan of rough-hewn men who drink hard and shoot up each other’s trucks, and indomitable women who marry young and age all too quickly. Ruth Anne Boatwright, the bastard child known simply as Bone–because she was pronounced “no bigger than a knucklebone” when she was born–shares her observations from the heart of their world with keen perspective.” – from the blurb on the inside cover of my copy. There’s more to the blurb but it’s super spoiler-y so I left it out. The following review doesn’t really contain major spoilers apart from content warnings.
Read this book if you want something challenging. It’s hard to call this book “good” with no qualifiers just because of the harder-to-stomach scenes, but it is indeed good. Basically if you can handle it, you should read it. See below for what I mean by handle it.
Skip this book if you’re not comfortable with material that features descriptions of sexual assault. The narrator is a child (most of the story she’s somewhere between 9 and 12) and experiences some pretty horrific abuse. The novel is semi-autobiographical.
I was first exposed to Dorothy Allison when she came to speak at my university’s Spring Literary Festival when I was in undergrad. She was promoting her new-at-the-time memoir, Two Or Three Things I Know for Sure, and if I remember correctly she spoke about the balancing act of truth in fiction and nonfiction and how writing from your truth can be hard because of your own response and that of those who themselves in your writing. I didn’t pick up her book at the time, but she always stuck in my mind.
I think I avoided her writing at that point in my life because her subject matter–poor, white families from the rural South (of the US)–embodied to me everything I was trying to distance myself from about my hometown. I’m from rural Ohio, which definitely isn’t the South, but the county I’m from is mostly farms, a couple of factories, and highway retail giants like Walmart. Half the kids at my high school talked with a pronounced twang, and we had a Drive Your Tractor to School day. I often felt ostracized by these kids for a variety of reasons but ended up attributing most of our differences to a fundamental country/rural/hick vs …not those things, I suppose. So when I got to college and heard Dorothy Allison speaking, I didn’t feel that I had enough distance from what I perceived to be the core characteristics of my hometown, a place that regularly made me feel like an utter alien, to have any interest in reading books that I assumed would be sympathetic to the things I was trying to get away from.
Recently, my husband Zak and I were talking about diversity and representation in the books that we read. In my review of The Book of Salt I had mentioned that I prefer to read books that were originally written in English because I worry about missing some of the author’s original intention. Zak had been reading about a translator who was kind of questioning literary translation as a field due to the kind of work that gets translated–it’s much more common for writing from middle or upper-class writers to be translated. Even if you’re taking care to read work from ethnic or cultural backgrounds different from your own, you’re likely to end up reading mostly books written by people from similar economic or class backgrounds as yours:
“During my years in Europe and Latin America, I realized that most contemporary books that ended up being translated were written by the people whom “we” felt comfortable with. These were the people who lived in the neighborhood we would choose to live in if we lived in Bogotá or Budapest, the class of people, shaped by the infrastructure, who shared our tastes, politics, and cultural interests. I started to become sure that a book from or about Paris, Texas, would have been far more instructive to people like us than a book from or about Paris, France. Frequent-flying is no proof against provincialism, as anyone who has ever observed frequent flyers knows.” – Benjamin Moser
So, Zak said he’d be interested in reading a book about and by someone from a lower-class American background. I remembered Dorothy Allison’s existence and recommended Bastard Out of Carolina despite having not read it. Zak read it quickly, within a few days. I picked up the book a couple days later and finished it within 36 hours.
Allison’s writing is deeply skillful and fluid. There’s just enough ‘dialect’ writing in the dialogue to make your brain start reading in an accent but not enough to be caricature-ish or distracting. The abuse scenes were uncomfortable, as that sort of thing will always be, but Allison keeps it from turning into suffering porn because it’s never really about the abuse, but the circumstances that allowed it to happen and the aftermath in the family and community.
What I noticed the most in the themes of the book was the fixation on stories. Bone is always asking her family for stories. What stories someone is permitted to hear is a metric of how grown the family sees them as. Bone formed relationships with her cousins and with Shannon through exchanging stories. When Bone is living in the furthest reaches of her despair, the extent of her suffering is demonstrated in her lack of interest in the opportunity to ask her aunt for the stories her mother would never tell her. Toward the end of the book when Bone is half-conscious and trying to devise a way to exact revenge, she takes stock of her physical condition and is relieved that it would merit a “story” about her revenge being self-defense. And one of the aunts keeps a binder of newspaper clippings about the Boatwrights, of stories that outsiders to the family have told about them. When Bone complains that no one looks right in the pictures from the newspapers, Aunt Alma replies that “Watery ink and gray paper makes everybody look a little crazy.” If I want to put my English major hat back on for a second, I can see that as being a comment on how a story is almost never completely true to the events that inspired it, but sometimes the story is all you have left.
Reading this book made me want to ask my parents for more of their stories. I want to know what the family structure was like for them growing up; I want to know where their sense of community was the strongest. I’m glad I’ve gotten over my resentment of my hometown enough to return to it and similar populations with these kinds of questions. Zak was telling me about a Goodreads review that he saw for Bastard Out of Carolina that amounted to someone saying that the book wasn’t realistic because the family was too smart and looked out for each other too much. Opinions like that, opinions like the ones I had before getting some distance and growing up a bit, are a great example of why people should read more from underprivileged populations in their own cultures.