Ruth Anne Boatwright--known as Bone--is officially a bastard. The hospital where she's born, in Greenville, South Carolina, places a red sticker directly on her birth certificate signifying the fact. Her mother goes to great lengths to change it, but the bureaucracy is impenetrable; some even believe she's behind the burning down of the courthouse with all of its records. Is it love for Bone that compels her mother to have the birth certificate amended, or is it the feeling that Bone's bastardy reflects poorly on her? Is it love for Bone and her sister that drives her into the arms of Glen, the man who ends up sexually and physically abusing Bone, or just pure romantic love? The answer to both questions is somewhere between, of course, and these kinds of love are headed for conflict: when Daddy Glen's abuse becomes too much for Bone to bear, what will her mother choose?
I misjudged this book. I thought at first it was going to be one of those slice-of-Southern-life deals, where the sweet tea is always loaded with sugar and family can overcome anything. I was expecting Barbara Kingsolver. But Bastard Out of Carolina is much darker and conflicted than I expected. It's conflicted about the South; it's conflicted about family; it's conflicted about love. It became clear that I had misjudged it when Daddy Glen abuses nine year-old Bone for the first time, touching her, and himself, in a car while her mother is away. The abuse is explicitly depicted, and gets far worse, but Allison is careful not to make the book punishing by forefronting it all the time. It lingers, or the threat of it, in the background all the time. Fear of it makes Bone mean and resentful, and she comes to understand it as an aspect of her own poverty and marginalization as a girl:
Men could do anything, and everything they did, no matter how violent or mistaken, was viewed with humor and understanding. The sheriff would lock them up for shooting out each other's windows, or racing their pickups down the railroad tracks, or punching out the bartender over at the Rhythm Ranch, and my aunts would shrug and make sure the children were all right at home. What men did was just what men did. Some days I would grind my teeth, wishing I had been born a boy.
Yes, when Bone's uncles find out about Daddy Glen's abuse, they beat the everloving crap out of him. But such violence hardly makes them heroes, or affirms the importance of family; instead, it becomes part of the same dark male impulse that drives Daddy Glen. Allison encourages us to see Bone's rage as a problem, a destabilizing force, but also an appropriate response to the forces, local and social, that traumatize her. Allison is careful not to make her a victim only, which would deaden the narrative; she has dreams of becoming a gospel singer, and Allison's description of the small-town gospel circuit is detailed and convincing. "I wanted, I wanted, I wanted something," Allison writes, "Jesus or God or orange-blossom scent or dark chocolate terror in my throat."
By the end of the novel, I really came to respect Allison's steel-eyed realism. Bastard Out of Carolina really has no room for sentimentalism, or feel-good redemption stories. It's got a sense of humor, but it's also deadly serious about the traumatic consequences of abuse. In the end--spoiler alert, and, uh, trigger warning--Bone's mother walks in on Daddy Glen raping Bone. She realizes, once and for all, that Glen and Bone can't be together. But her love for Glen is so intense--and, Allison suggests, sincere on both sides--that she ends up abandoning Bone instead of Glen. That's a sobering and unexpected choice on Allison's part. In the end, Bastard rejects all the pat ways you might read the image of the birth certificate: Bone does not need a new father to un-bastardize her, and the attempt to give her one is destructive in the extreme, but neither does the novel glibly suggest that what she really needs is to become independent of her family. Yes, her rage becomes wiser, transforms into determination, but who can leave their family behind? The novel ends with her in the arms of her aunt, which is not enough, but sometimes what you get, Allison suggests, is not enough, not even close.