Monday, September 3, 2007

What are Little Girls Made Of?

Sugar and spice and everything nice? Or, in the case of Bone, the young heroine and narrator of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out Of Carolina, rusty hooks, dirty looks, forbidden books, anger and fear.

The plot of the novel is simple enough. It tells the tale of Ruth Anne Boatwright's (commonly known as Bone) first 13 years, with her half-sister Reese, her mama who was a widow before her 20th birthday, and her abusive, twisted stepfather Daddy Glen. The extended Boatwright clan is a real treat, one of the delights of the novel. There's the long-suffering Aunt Ruth, who loves gospel music and teaches Bone to love it too. A gang of uncles who blur in the reader's mind, whose kindly attitude around Bone serve as a sharp contrast to their known hobbies of getting drunk, shooting at one another, messing around with women, and winding up in jail. There's Aunt Raylene, a tough, independent-minded lesbian who's as fearsome as any of the uncles, and who scavenges stuff from the river to sell.

The character of Bone is noteworthy too. Bone suffers a lot of beatings at the hands of Daddy Glen, all with a bizarre sexual undercurrent. These, combined with the family's reputation as purebred white trash, have a strong effect on her. She describes herself often as boiling over with rage, simmering inside, all kinds of other fiery metaphors and similes, and when she does, the reader can feel it, and the futility of trying to express that kind of blind rage in words. She masturbates a lot, and has strange fantasies.

One character that I found equally captivating in terms of a statement about childhood is Bone's friend Shannon Pearl. Shannon is the only child of a couple deeply involved in the gospel music world (her father is a concert promoter and owns a Christian bookstore; her mother sews stage costumes for gospel singers). Shannon is also a sickly, scary-looking albino. You can see the veins in her scalp, you can see her skull through her skin, she has pink eyes and wears thick glasses. Even adults are afraid of her and shun her, and the other children are merciless. Yet, as Bone herself says, although you may expect Shannon to have a saintly personality, she doesn't. She is as angry, hateful and vengeful as Bone, and determined to get back at everyone who hurt her. There's little goodness in her, and there's a wonderful climactic scene in a graveyard where both Bone and Shannon's anger finally erupt at one another, destroying the fragile friendship.

I enjoyed reading this book. It reminded me a lot of the Tawni O'Dell that I was reading earlier in the summer, in that it doesn't depict total misery or total happiness. Allison draws a world of vivid characters around Bone, but she doesn't go too far in idealizing their difficult and complicated lives. She does an excellent job of getting at the complexity in people: one of Bone's favorite uncles, who is nothing but kindness and gentleness to Bone and to the ailing Aunt Ruth also is a polygamist who went to jail and then proceeded to get his stay extended by fighting. It works the other way, too: Bone's Mama, who is largely a sympathetic and kind person, fails to protect her from the beatings she suffers at Daddy Glen's hands, and can't even walk away from him for good. And although Daddy Glen's behavior is that of a monster, we also see the side of him that has never stopped striving for his father's approval and who tries so hard to succeed at any kind of job but just can't make it happen.

I read this book because I remember the title scribbled in the margins of some notes from college. I don't know which professor told me about it (I'm guessing Dr. Daphne Kutzer) but I'd like to thank whoever it was. Dorothy Allison has three other books:Cavedweller,Two or Three Things I Know For Sure and Trash. I will definitely be putting them on my list.

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