This novel tells the story of Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, a young girl in South Carolina who grows up the bastard child of Anney Boatwright. The Boatwrights are not the deserving poor which Allison writes elsewhere are romanticized in stories of the South; rather, they are more aligned with the Slatterys in Gone with the Wind, the “trash down on the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death” (206). Elsewhere, Allison explains that she wrote the novel “because, ultimately, the way to claim my family’s pride and tragedy, and the embattled sexuality I had fashioned on a base of violence and abuse” (“A Matter of Class”). In this novel, Bone grows up amid dire poverty, deprivation, and violence. Molested and beaten savagely by her stepfather, Bone survives with the help of her extended family of aunts and uncles who are similarly trapped by poverty and violence.
There are no easy answers in this novel. People are trapped by decisions they were too young to realize they were making when they made them, whether by having children at 15 or by petty theft even earlier. Anney can’t stay away from her husband, Glenn, even after seeing him rape her 13-year-old daughter. Bone’s beloved Uncle Earl is a womanizer who can’t stay out of jail. Still, there’s a fierce sense of familial solidarity which is (to me, at least) uniquely southern, as the way in which these characters claim their Boatwright identity seems to be their most fundamental sense of personal identification.
Reading this for a Queer South class, there’s certainly plenty to be said about sexuality and sexual identity in the novel. In “A Matter of Class,” Dorothy Allison is quite specific about her own use of the word “queer” in describing her own sexual identity:
I use the word queer to mean more than lesbian. Since I first used it in 1980 I have always meant it to imply that I am not only lesbian but a transgressive lesbian-femme, masochistic, as sexually aggressive as the women I seek out, and as pornographic in my imagination and sexual activities as the heterosexual hegemony has ever believed….My sexual identity is intimately constructed by my class and regional background, and much of the hatred directed at my sexual preference is class hatred—however much people, feminists in particular, like to pretend this is not a factor.
Allison does not shy away from troubling sexuality in Bastard: in addition to the scenes of molestation and rape, Bone’s emergent sexuality is one in her sexual fantasies usually incorporate violence and danger, and at times she fantasizes about being watched while Daddy Glen is beating her. It is this frankness, however, which I think gives the novel its strength. While the novel’s ending is hopeful to a certain extent—Bone lives with her Aunt Raylene, escaping the violence and danger of Daddy Glenn’s house—it’s certainly not an overly optimistic one.
For my own research purposes, there are many places in the novel in which ugliness appears. Boatwright family appearance is itself a physical marker, one of tragedy is recorded on the body. After Anney’s husband Lyle dies, her sister Ruth notes that, “Nothing will ever hit you this hard….Now you look like a Boatwright….Now you got the look. You’re as old as you’re ever gonna get” (8). Bone herself identifies as ugly: “No part of me was that worshipful, dreamy-eyed storybook girlchild, no part of me was beautiful” (208). To Bone, her ugliness is a marker of her unwanted state: “Love would make me beautiful; a father’s love would purify my heart, turn my bitter soul sweet, and lighten my Cherokee eyes” (209). Bone sees her own inner rage and bitterness as written on her body, a vicious cycle in which she’s hated for her ugliness, a hatred which in turn feeds her own inner rage and keeps her angry eyes dark.
Even more fascinating to me is the story of Shannon Pearl which is embedded in the novel, a story which I’ve frequently seen anthologized as a stand-alone story. Shannon Pearl is the almost albino-looking child of parents deeply involved in evangelical Christianity, as her mother manages a Christian bookstore and sews costumes for gospel singers, while her father books acts on the gospel music circuit. Shannon’s ugliness is a threatening one which people find it difficult to turn away from; Bone compares her need to “hang around what Granny called ‘that strange and ugly child’” to a compulsion to pick at scabs (156). In one description, Bone sees Shannon, “Looking back at me from between her mother’s legs, Shannon was wholly monstrous, a lurching hunched creature shining with sweat and smug satisfaction” (155)—a description which to me seems to posit Shannon as a monstrous vagina dentata creature, an incarnation of the monstrous feminine.
Even more importantly, Shannon is just as ugly on the inside. Bone notes, “I had the idea that she was so ugly on the outside, it was only reasonable that Shannon would turn out to be saintlike when you got to know her,” and explains that such a characterization is what would happen in storybooks (157). However, Shannon is angry and mean, getting drunk at gospel shows and calling Bone out on her poverty and dependence. Shannon’s death is just as monstrous as her appearance while alive: at a barbeque, she plays with lighter fluid and is almost immediately turned to ashes, as “all around her skull her fine hair stood up in a crown of burning glory” (201). The story of Shannon Pearl is a fascinating amalgamation of the monstrous feminine and the monstrous Christian, obsession, love and disgust. In some way, it connects female ugliness with devotion and religion, and her death in somewhat seems to illuminate Bone’s earlier description of religious devotion: “This was what the gospel was meant to do—make you hate yourself and love yourself at the same time, make you ashamed and glorified” (136). Shannon’s life and death seems to personify the combination of shame and glory.