Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review: The Mark of Illegitimacy


Dorothy Allison’s debut novel was a NY Times Notable Book, a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award, and a National Bestseller. It was adapted to the screen and directed by Anjelica Huston. And it’s generally regarded as a great southern novel. Allison claims to tell the story “you may not want to hear,” and Bastard Out of Carolina hits that nail on its head. It’s a pretty hard story to hear.

In her semi-autobiographical first novel, Allison tells the story of Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright. Bone was an accident and born in one, too, as her fifteen-year-old pregnant mother shot through the windshield during an auto accident and proceeded to give birth to her first daughter. The ‘ILLEGITIMATE’ slapped across Bone’s birth certificate marks her for life, earning her a rightful place with the rest of the Boatwright clan.

The Boatwrights are a somewhat notorious family in their South Carolina town, known for their beer-guzzling, confrontational men and indomitable women. The men cheat on their wives while the wives pretend they don’t know, and manhood is defined by how much time you’ve spent in jail. The rest of the town views them as “trash.” They are dysfunctional but loyal, messed up but proud.

When Bone’s mother Anney marries Glen (husband number two and still under 21), the real trouble begins. He seems like a nice enough guy at first—deeply in love with Anney, gentle and fatherly towards her two girls. But Glen’s devotion to Anney leans more on the obsessive side, and his desire to be on the level of a Boatwright man (mixed with his own “father issues”) turns him sour, violent, and cruel. Bone becomes the target of Daddy Glen’s jealousy and frustrations that manipulate into physical and sexual abuse. Meanwhile, all Bone wants to do is get OUT.

Allison has created a complex novel here. Anney is torn between her husband and her children; Bone can’t decide if she loves or hates her mother. The inner turmoil that these characters feel really shows through on paper. We hear the story through Bone’s perspective, and though her understanding may be limited, we immediately see the full picture and understand the environment surrounding Bone. The voice is convincing as a pre-teen, and the dialect is not over-the-top. Though the story takes place in the late fifties, the situations and emotions are so raw and universal that it could be anytime, anywhere.
Bastard Out of Carolina will take you on an intense ride, and it is definitely worth reading.


Salvatore said…

It really sounds like there's a lot of abuse in this tale. Is it very aggressive in style too?

Kari said…

Not too explicit, but aggressive enough to make its point clear.

J.T. Oldfield said…

This sounds really good. Does it take place in present day? (just wondering because it sounds like social services would step in…)

Kari said…

J.T., it takes place in the 1950s in a rural part of South Carolina (I don't think they mark 'ILLEGITIMATE' on birth certificates anymore!). If you read, you'll understand why there was no outside intervention, and sadly, I'm sure a lot of abused kids are never helped for the same reason.

J.T. Oldfield said…

Riiiiight…probably should have gotten that with the "ILLEGITIMATE" thing.

mynovelreviews said…

Sounds like a novel worth reading!I'll have to keep my eye out for it.