Friday, December 14, 2012

Bastard Out Of Carolina Hits 20 Years

Bastard Out Of Carolina
For two decades, Bastard Out Of Carolina by Dorothy Allison has received its share of praise and scorn. The praise came from critics like George Garrett with the New York Times and K.K. Roeder of the San Francisco Review of Books. The scorn comes from misguided school districts, those still quick to ban a modern classic that has been likened to Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger or To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

For every challenge, the author still finds some solace in individual encounters, people who thank her for helping them make sense of what makes no sense. Such compliments both lift and break Allison's heart when they happen. They lift her up because her story made a difference. They break her heart because she understands what people have to live through to provide such a thoughtful response.

In the afterword of the 20th anniversary edition of Bastard Out Of Carolina, Allison retells this encounter and her feelings about it. It was the second time her heart was broken that day. The first time was the very reason she had traveled to California. A school had banned her book, breaking not only Allison's heart but also the conviction of the teacher who chose it and the students who discovered they weren't alone.

Bastard Out Of Carolina chronicles coming of age under the shadow of abuse.

Although often described as semi-autobiographical, Allison frequently draws distinctions between her life and the life of her protagonist, Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright. She had written fiction, not a memoir — a child very different from her in that Bone was brave, stubborn and resilient. She was also a child who could maintain hope even in despair, something Allison would need years to find within herself.

"I invented a loved creature to set against the memory of helplessness and rage," says Allison. "I wanted to invent a stronger and more resilient character and give her a family much like my own."

In doing so, Bone becomes not only memorable but also mythic in her presentation. Even as a young child, Bone is both purposeful and observant, frequently pointing out how people dehumanize others based on nothing more than the slightest of differences. And yet, Bone is saddled with labels too, with the one that is most unseen carrying the most impactful and heart-wrenching consequences.

The story that some people struggle with and why it matters.

Bastard Out Of Carolina
Set in rural South Carolina, Bastard Out Of Carolina is the story of a tormented girl and how she attempts to reconcile her circumstances and find a way to see herself in the world. It isn't easy. Bone is born to a teenage mother in an era where "illegitimate" carried a stigma deeper than any snickers might suggest.

Even when her mother attempts to amend the birth certificate out of pride, her efforts are met with resistance. "White trash," especially those with any Native American and possibly African-American ancestry, are expected to wear any stains they pick up along the way.

At the same time, her family presents a compelling and mesmerizing paradox. Bone's family, the Boatwrights, are both proud and broken. For many of the women, their only opportunity for a better life (and sometimes sense of worth) is always tied to finding the right man. After Bone is born, her mother does, has a second child, and is unfortunately widowed shortly thereafter.

When her mother, Anney, marries a second time, it seems their fortunes might change again. Glen Weddell is the son of a socially prominent dairy farmer. But the celebration is short lived as the story isn't kind.

As his family's fortunes change, he loses his job, and his first child (Anney's third) is stillborn, Weddell begins a transformation from a gentle and loving man to one who objectifies his stepdaughter and expects subservience. As he does, Bone becomes the outlet for his failings — the sexual advances and physical beatings escalate to outright abuse and broken bones.

Although Anney leaves Weddell when she discovers the physical abuse (but not the sexual abuse that Bone hides in shame), she ultimately decides to give him a second chance. And, eventually, justifies the abuse by coaching her daughter to avoid the unavoidable. All the while, Anney finds reasons for Bone to live with relatives and friends, providing a deeper portrait of both the family and the community.

A bit about author Dorothy Allison. 

Dorothy Allison
Bastard Out Of Carolina was Allison's debut novel. Although fiction, Bone does share some similarities of circumstance. Allison was also born to a 15-year-old mother in South Carolina. She was poor and worked as a waitress and cook until she married. Allison's stepfather sexually abused her.

She became the first in her family to graduate high school and eventually attend college. It was there that she joined a women's movement that helped her learn not to hide her suffering but state it frankly, not only for her sake but for any child who comes after her. Many people are grateful that she did.

Bastard Out Of Carolina Stirs 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While some might separate the work of Salinger or Lee from Allison, it's impossible not to recognize this novel for finding its power from a different place. Bastard Out Of Carolina is not only near flawless in its telling, but also crafts its own legacy in painting the portrait of a child, a family, and poverty-stricken communities so that others may understand what can't be understood. The lesson here, if there is but one, is that truth remains the cure while censorship feeds cruelty.

Bastard Out of Carolina: A Novel by Dorothy Allison can be found on Amazon. The book is also available from Barnes & Noble and can be downloaded from iBooks. The audio book, available at iTunes, is narrated by Elizabeth Evans. Evans courageously balances the tragedy and atrocity, pride and audacity of every character, punctuating it all with brief flashes of innocence.
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