Baptism by Fire: Dorothy Allison’s ‘Bastard Out of Carolina

Few novels have made my stomach hurt quite like Bastard Out of Carolina. It is, by genre distinctions, a bildungsroman, one that follows a young girl, Bone Boatwright, and her impoverished upbringing in mid-20th century (you guessed it) Carolina. Make no mistake though: it’s a horror novel, through and through. The horrors Bone endures, ranging from poverty to child sexual abuse to the general prejudice her family receives from the wider public, are illustrated in unflinching detail by Allison. There is no sugarcoating the misery, no softening the brutal edges with tacky sentiment.

Because of that brutality, the novel is a triumph. There is a fine line between art about misery and misery porn and more often than not, more artists tip toward the latter rather than the former. That Allison firmly places her novel in the former category is impressive enough; that the book is her debut is stunning.

As a novel, Bastard Out of Carolina is more character study than a densely plotted narrative. It’s a first person account from Bone, a precocious child whose miserable upbringing hardens her into a bitter, angry young woman. She carefully details her world so vividly, it feels like a diaphanous blending of journalistic realism and a world of dreams. Bone is smarter than most in how much she knows about her family and her lot in life, but when she falls victim to horrific abuse, her perceptions shatter and calcify. She doesn’t know how to handle it, veering wildly from self-blame to wanting biblical revenge on her abuser. Allison hits just the right note of wisdom and naïveté with Bone: her upbringing has left her with a jaundiced, shrewd perspective of the world, but her comprehension of life’s miseries and horrors are still fundamentally child-like.

The richly drawn cast of supporting characters are all splendid, and Allison beautifully captures Bone’s mother with sensitivity and nuance. In art relating to child abuse, or miserable childhoods in general, it is all too simple to paint the parental figure(s) as melodramatic villains or wafer-thin wimpy victims. Allison finds the right note: Bone’s mother is not a bad woman, in and of herself. She is a fighter who honestly does what she thinks will be best for her children. However, she is also young (she had Bone when she was 15 or so), and as consequence, having to grow up so fast left her ill-equipped for life’s many struggles, thereby giving her a unique naïveté that permits her to forgive and stick alongside Bone’s abusive stepfather. The novel suggests while Bone’s mother is far from perfect, to cast to cast equal blame on her for failing in love with an abuser is ultimately pointless.

In that sense, Bastard Out of Carolina is a great humanistic classic because it sees it’s characters and their struggles and reservations so clearly, with minimal judgement. The closest to a one-note character is Bone’s abusive stepfather, but given the novel is all from Bone’s perspective, that is perhaps not too surprising. She is genuinely curious about him and why he hates and hurts her so, which adds another layer of sadness to the narrative: there is so much misery, there where times I wish I could have actually reached out to Bone and helped her. The reader is left wanting her to be safe, but much like Bone herself, is largely unable to do much.

The feeling of helplessness pervades the novel, and ultimately, I would say that’s what makes it a success: there is no reassurance Bone will be okay in the long run, much like any other abused child. There is no way to predict what will happen, and the sad reality is some people just have the misfortune to be born into lives of unhappiness.

Whether they triumph and rise above it all, that is a story for another time.