Review: Bastard Out of Carolina

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Bastard Out of Carolina
by Dorothy Allison

★★★★★

2012 (originally published 1992) • 336 pages • Plume

 

Sia has adopted the young dancer Maddie Ziegler as a kind of avatar, and so I expected to see her crop up when Sia appeared on Saturday Night Live this weekend—even without knowing that Ziegler had already turned up in the music video for “Elastic Heart.” Less inevitable was seeing another dancer, Denna Thomsen, don the leotard and blonde bob as well. But by the time Ziegler was stomping on the back of her older dance partner, I was enthralled. The performance can be read many ways, but the more I read about the larger context of the song—the official music video features Ziegler dancing with a bearded Shia LaBeouf as a pair of “warring ‘sia’ self states,” according to the artist—the more I was convinced that the performance on Saturday Night Live yielded plenty of fruit as a treatise on motherhood.

Between that performance of “Elastic Heart” and Bastard Out of Carolina, I’ve been thinking about motherhood, lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the spiritual violence of motherhood. Louis C.K. has a joke about how adopting a dog is just starting a countdown to sorrow, because owners will usually outlive their dogs. I deeply suspect that the same is true of raising a child. There comes a moment when you look into your child’s eyes and discover that she is both the same as you and different from you. There comes a moment when you look into your mother’s eyes and discover that she is both the same as you and different from you. It’s the moment in Sia’s performance when the child wraps her arms around Sia, declaring agency, and it breaks her mother’s heart; it’s the moment when Bone loses her mother, because her mother can still love the man who abused and raped her daughter. It’s the moment when you recognize each other as independent and fallible beings. It’s the moment when you are discover that you are now equals.

I fell in something hotter and drier than love with Dorothy Allison’s writing when I came across her essay “A Question of Class,” where she talks about the difficulties she’s faced at the intersection of queer and poor. It’s as visceral as she confesses to wanting her prose to be, so off I trotted to said prose. And here is another thing to fall for: she writes of an angry girlhood.

Bastard Out of Carolina is often taught in high schools and is, as you can imagine and as Allison discusses in the afterword to this twentieth anniversary edition, hotly contested. But I don’t think it’s about the level of abuse Bone suffers at the hands of her stepfather, but about Bone. I remember the rape narratives I came across in middle school and high school featuring faultless heroines who suffer silently until rescued, presumably to forestall the “enjoyable” discussions about consent my middle school Health class I stewed through. (I slaked my anger on correcting misinformation about abortion in the textbook.) Bone is no such long-suffering, pure heroine. she’s serious, quiet, and righteously angry. She understands the world both better and worse than she thinks she does. She deeply suspects and speculates on her mother’s coping mechanisms. She knows how others think of her people—the poor, the backwoods, the Boatwrights. And she spends the novel grappling with her mother’s seeming desire to ignore what is happening to her.

And Bone is righteously, incandescently angry at the world, society, and mother that fail her:

After that, when I passed the Woolworth’s windows, it would come back—that dizzy desperate hunger edged with hatred and an aching lust to hurt somebody back. I wondered if that kind of hunger and rage was what Tommy Lee felt when he went through his mama’s pocketbook. It was a hunger in the back of the throat, not the belly, an echoing emptiness that ached for the release of screaming. Whenever we went to visit Daddy Glen’s people, that hunger would throb and swell behind my tongue until I found myself standing silent and hungry in the middle of a family gathering full of noise and food. (98)

We do not see enough angry girls in fiction—girls whose anger is not dismissed or ignored, but recognized and validated. Girls, even girls protected from what Bone suffers, have every right to be angry. To see an angry girl, and an angry girl who dominates the novel with her own searing voice at that, is more than a breath of fresh air. I was an angry girl myself, but I never realized it, no matter how hateful and spiteful I was, no matter how deeply I overreacted to other things, no matter how loud I raged. No one around me knew what to do with a overgrown girl’s unreasonable anger, largely because I don’t think they thought young girls could be that angry, and we all largely pretended it wasn’t happening. (It got better, eventually.) It, thank God, was not for the reasons Bone is angry; it was a different, internal anger. But it was an anger all the same. Validation comes in all forms, even if it’s the barest fingerprint of Bone’s life against mine.

Bone, eventually, thankfully, and mercifully is given a way out—through her extended family, who defend her against Glen, and specifically her aunt Raylene, who ultimately takes her in. But Bone ultimately rescues herself, by making the heartbreaking realization that her mother cannot help her. It’s a messy novel, as it has to be, and it’s searing. I opened Bastard Out of Carolina to read a few pages at lunch on Saturday and could not physically tear myself away. I have so much to learn from Dorothy Allison.

I rented this book from the public library.