Carolina Bastards

“Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.”

Bastard Out of Carolina is a novel I wish I’d read in 1992 when both it and I “came out.”  Maybe it would’ve helped me feel, if not normal, then close to “normal’s” outer bounds.  Although Bastard isn’t about growing up gay, it dwells on those common human feelings of self-directed anger, loneliness and being different without knowing why.    

Dorothy Allison writes so personally about a girl nicknamed “Bone” who grew up in a home with an abusive step-father that any reader will naturally wonder how much of this novel is true.  Truth or fiction, Allison chose to write in fictional form and Bastard Out of Carolina should be read accordingly. 
No doubt somewhere Allison has answered  the “truth or fiction” question and with basic interest research I could probably discover the answer.  But honestly? I don’t want to know.  I hope this is a work of fiction and that Allison didn’t have to suffer under the domination of such a horrible monster like “Daddy Glen” but I suspect the worst.   

Allison and I grew up in the same hometown of Greenville, South Carolina and many of the fictional references in Bastard are actual places.  White Horse Road forms what was primarily a north-south boundary between the poor western part of the city of Greenville and the rural-country foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  (Like everywhere else in the US, today that area is inhabited by suburbanites.)  

The fictional Bone’s mother worked long hours at a White Horse Road diner.  My first babysitter, Momma King, who I wrote about so fondly in my memoir, lived a half mile from White Horse Road.  (For those of you who loved her in my memoir, I hate to report it but Momma King died seven months ago.)  Tabernacle Baptist Church and School, where I endured the most awful year of my school life with an evil kindergarten teacher was also on White Horse Road, and I’ve been to the White Horse Road Winn-Dixie grocery store (this was before “super markets.)  I laughed aloud, catching nervous glances from other weary Amtrak passengers, reading about Aunt Raylene’s trips to “that roadhouse over at the Greer city limits” (anyone who’s driven through Greer on the trip between Greenville and Spartanburg would have the same reaction imagining the town as a “city,” especially as one with “city limits.”) 

“Bone” causes some trouble at the Woolworth’s store in downtown Greenville.  Woolworth’s is no longer there, but on November 22, 1963 my mother was on the job at that Woolworth’s as a salesgirl when Kennedy was assassinated.  I love the references to sweetened ice tea, especially the detail about Bone’s mother boiling a pot of sugar water to make the tea.  And after an adulthood spent mostly in Southern California and Manhattan, I’d almost forgotten about the existence of “chow chow.”  Never a favorite of mine, but my late father could eat “chow chow” straight out of the mason jars my mother used to make it in.  Home canning with mason jars is another staple of Bone’s family and Bone and her younger sister, Reese (who was not, like Bone, a bastard), collect muscadines in the late summer.  Another stable is the Pontiac; my dad owned at least five in during his life.  The Boatwright clan collected green stamps.  The kids picked strawberries, an act derided as “n—er’s work.”  (The novel is also a period piece, evidenced by the reality that even in South Carolina today, strawberries are picked by recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America.) 

A tragically eerie coincidence between my life and this story occurs when Bone and Reese find themselves sitting in the car in the parking lot of Greenville General Hospital waiting for the birth of their sibiling, only to have Daddy Glen return to tell them the baby had died.  As I wrote in my memoir, when I was nine, my younger brother and I waited excitedly in the parking lot of Greenville General Hospital, but when our father came out to truck, told us the devastating news that the baby girl had died. 

One difference is that Bone fears that her fate will be to end up working in one of the textile mills that used to dot the upstate South Carolina landscape.  I knew I didn’t possess the physical skill or coordination to hold down one of these jobs. 

But the most powerful elements of this story are the references to family and the divine.   Although the geographic and physical details grab my attention, the portrayals of relatives and religion go right to my core.  Bone develops a love for church music and a desire to become a gospel singer.  In high school, I sang in a men’s quartert that travelled to churches in the Carolinas.  Bone blames herself for the wickedness her step-father has inflicted on her and tearfully prays, “I’m sorry.  Jesus, I’m sorry,” but only moments later wonder if her dirtiness was the reason Jesus wouldn’t speak to her heart.  Later she thinks, “I could not tell if what I truly hungered for was God or love or absolution.  Salvation was complicated.” 

Complicated indeed.  Bone comes “close to being saved about fourteen times – fourteen Sundays in fourteen different Baptist churches” finally admitting that “whatever magic Jesus’ grace promised, I didn’t feel it.”  Giving up on religion, Bone embraces the Bible’s dark side.  “I liked Revelations, loved the Whore of Babylon and the promised rivers of blood and and fire.  It struck me like gospel music, it promised vindication.” 

Uncle Earle, my favorite commentator in the novel, had many opinions about religion, not all of them consistent.  He damned Catholics for causing his wife to leave him but admired them at the same time, saying:

What the hell Baptists got?  Grape-juice communions, silly rules against dancing and movies, self-righteousness by the barrelful, damn-fool preachers in shiny suits, and simpleminded parishoners!  Baptists could learn something from the Catholics.

Using his typical folk widsom, Uncle Earle explains his problem with the church, saying, “Religion gets you and then milks you dry…. None of them would give two drops of piss for me if I was already part of their saggy-assed congregations.”

As deeply as religion is embedded in my own bones, Allison’s portrayal of Bone’s family got to me even more.  Women are the stregth and the backbone of her family.  To a lesser extent than Bone, I found that to be true.  “Steel Magnolias” may have become a stereotype or even cliche, but as always, it’s rooted in reality.  Her uncles, who view spending time in jail as a rite of passage, are hot-tempered drunks who shoot up each other’s trucks for fun while the women sew, wash and iron, and cook and clean while holding down jobs outside the home. 

Beer and whiskey didn’t dampen Uncle Earle’s wisdom:

Seems like after that we were all grown up and everything was different.  It’s the way of things.  One day you’re all family together, fighting and hugging from one moment to the next, and then it’s all gone.  You’re off making your own family, scared of what’s coming next, and Lord, things have a way of running faster and faster all the time.

Photographs are of Dorothy Allison taken by various photographers located at:

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