On Twitter yesterday they announced that Bastard Out of Carolina is celebrating its 20th anniversary today. Twenty years! It’s a book that still stands out today. This is an essay I wrote about Bastard for Banned Books Week 2000.
(And after you buy Bastard, buy my book!)
There have been many books that have made me a writer. Harriet the Spy taught me to write down everything I saw, to not settle for the norm, and always write for you and to entertain. Bird by Bird helped me get short assignments done and taught me it was okay not to be as famous as Danielle Steel or Stephen King. But it was Bastard Out Of Carolina by Dorothy Allison that taught me to tell the truth. This one is going to be a half review, half commentary. I've tried not to reveal too much because if you haven't read the book yet I want you to get up and buy it right away.
The book starts off with the birth of Ruth Anne Boatwright, nicknamed Bone because one of her Uncles said: "She's no smaller than a knucklebone." Luck is against Bone at the start: Because her mother Anney wasn't married at the time of Bone's birth (Anney was only fifteen) a stamp on Bone's birth certificate says she is a bastard in the eyes of South Carolina. In bittersweet scenes, every year Anney tries to get the stamp erased from the certificate. It soon becomes a running joke in the small town of Greenville:
"Where you keep that paper, Ruth Anne's birth certificate, huh?" they'd (the people at the White Horse Café' where Anney works)
"Under the sink with all the other trash," she'd shoot back, giving them a glance so sharp they'd think twice before trying to tease her again…
Watch her in the diner, laughing, pouring coffee, palming tips, and frying eggs. Watch her push her hair back, tug her apron higher, refuse dates, pinches, and suggestions. Watch her eyes and how they sink into her face, the lines that grow from that tight stubborn mouth, the easy banter that rises from the deepest place inside her.
"Ain't it about time you tried the courthouse again, Sister Anney?"
"Ain't it time you zipped your britches, Brother Calvin?"
Eventually Anney gets married and has another daughter, Reese, but the husband dies. Bad luck runs in the Boatwright women; and it doesn't get any better when Anney meets Glen Waddell, a charmer who she falls for. And that is when Bone's luck turns for the worst.
Now this is when it gets painful to read, this is when people will throw down this book in anger, this is when people start thinking that banning this book is a pretty good idea. In one of the most painful scenes in literature, while Anney is giving birth to a stillborn boy, Glen (Bone and Reese are told to call him Daddy Glen) molests Bone in the hospital parking lot. It is a shameful act, and I thought about copying the passage here but reading it again upset me, besides I think the people who are reading this should read it for themselves. But I will say this: After that scene when Daddy Glen finds out about the baby, he cries. And even though we hate this man's guts, we do feel sorry for him. That's when I knew Dorothy Allison had the goods of a great writer: To make the reader feel compassion for this man, and to make him real.
The abuse gets worse and worse, but there are good things too: Bone's relationships with her Aunts Ruth, Alma, and Raylene; playing with her sister Reese and her cousins, her friendship with Shannon Pearl and how they sing country music together. I also loved that even in all this horror, somehow Bone tried to be a child despite it all, and she can describe beautifully the town she is growing up in:
Greenville, South Carolina, in 1955 was the most beautiful place in the world. Black walnut trees dropped their green-black fuzzy bulbs on Aunt Ruth's matted lawn, past where their knotty roots rose up out of the ground like the elbows and knees of dirty children suntanned dark and covered with scars. Weeping willows marched across the yard, following every wandering stream and ditch, their long whiplike fronds making tents that sheltered sweet-smelling beds of clover.
Dorothy Allison can describe this life because she lived it. Like Bone, her own stepfather molested her from the time she was a child until she was sixteen. She was born a bastard as well(the book is dedicated to Allison's mother Ruth Gibson Allison, who died in 1990). Trying to make sense of the pain that happened to her as a child, she wrote this book to make sense of it all. It received critical acclaim and was a finalist for the National Book Award and was made into a Showtime movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ron Eldard, and Jena Malone.
But it didn't take long for people to be upset about the book. It has been banned from several schools and when a librarian in one state put the book on the shelf anyway, someone tried to firebomb her house. Before I wrote this review reviewers on Amazon called it
"…sick…depressing…why can't she get over it?"
At first I wanted to write back, say something flippant like: "Boy, you're right! Where's the cheerful books on child abuse?" But then I want to tell them this: You don't get over something as terribly painful as what Dorothy Allison went through. You eventually move on, but you don't get over it. It is always there with you, and if you're lucky you can talk about it, you can heal. Or you can write something like Bastard Out Of Carolina and hope that by giving voice to this little girl named Bone. You can help other kids out there, give them a voice, help them give light to the dark corners of their sadness and shame and have them slowly heal as well.
Bastard Out Of Carolina helped me start telling the truth in my stories about growing up, about feeling dopey because I couldn't do math like the other kids, that I had bad acne and was teased, that I felt so ugly about myself that it scared me. When I was able to be honest with myself in that way, I started to feel better about myself. I knew that writing would be my way to healing myself, like it was for Dorothy Allison.
Kudos to the girls who wrote to Ms. Allison saying that because of the book they were able to get help and out of a abusive home. And kudos to Ms. Dorothy Allison herself for surviving a childhood no one should survive, yet somehow turning it into a beautiful story that hopefully will be around for many years to come and everyone should read. All these ladies have shown bravery. And bravery will win each time when a book gets banned.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries