I had a plan in mind for today, but then I was kicked in the head by a very wise person and my whole day was derailed. She is Dorothy Allison and the kick came from her powerful novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992. This great book grabbed me by the collar from the first page and shook me until I finished it.
The story is told by “Bone” Boatwright, a young girl born to an unwed 15-year-old in Greenville, South Carolina in 1949. The Boatwright clan is large, dirt poor, unruly and scrambling to survive, with limited success. Bone has an astute eye and is exposed to life’s brutalities early. Her mother marries and loves Daddy Glen, a loser from a middle class family, despite his violent victimization of Bone, whom he beats and abuses with abandon. The child’s travail is all the more bitter for her keen grasp of the situation, hopeless regard for the future, and need to internalize this strife in order to survive. (Thank God she loves to read.) Bone knows her mother loves her, how deeply flawed that love is and where the flaws came from. Her internal considerations spill out in some of the wisest and most finely drawn observations I have read, of which Faulkner himself surely would have been proud.
The book is populated by many memorable characters, while the story moves from strife to disaster to cataclysm. As I abandoned my plans to think about anything other than this great work of art and its message today, some thoughts occur: (1) a very wise person is born that way and his or her wisdom tends to grow with age, although people do not necessarily become wise with age. (2) We are formed by our family experience and environment at a very, very early age. Girls grow up well before they’re 14, and astute children grow up faster. (3) Entrenched sexism is a killer from which no one ultimately benefits. (4) Grinding poverty is one of the evils of the earth. Those of us who have grown up in middle class environments are so far removed from what an impoverished family’s life is like that Dorothy Allison’s work should be mandatory reading.
If I were an English teacher, I would teach Bastard Out of Carolina and ride my students until they turned in searing introspective essays. (And yes, the book was banned by the Maine Supreme Court from being taught in schools due to its graphic content. But real life is graphic!) Thank you, Dorothy Allison, for your courage and brilliant writing.
“Mankind cannot bear very much reality.” – T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets