Autostraddle Read a F*cking Book Club #3 – Bastard Out Of Carolina

It’s Book Club #3 — Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. I hope you read it. That will help you to participate.

It’s so funny, because you guys all have told me you have so much to talk about with this book, and I’m having a hard time finding anything to say at all. To me it feels like showing up to a wake, except without the sadness, grief and irreparable sense of loss; there’s this thing that everyone can see has happened, and you’re all in it together, but there’s nothing to say that will make it make sense, or sum it up, or wrap it up neatly so that everyone can put it in the past and move on.

Anyways! I thought this book was really good, how about you?

I guess the truth is that it’s hard to talk about this book without talking about myself, and I don’t want to do that here? Somehow this book is so personal – I don’t know if that’s just me, but honestly I suspect it’s not. Her experience is very specific (and I think before we go any farther we do have to acknowledge that this is more or less her experience, and fictionalized lightly I think if at all) in the details, but kind of universal in that it’s about the point at which you realize people who are supposed to love you can hurt you, that people who DO love you can hurt you, and that the people you trust most sometimes let you down in the most absolute and devastating way possible.

That is what saves this from being a YA novel, I think. I used to intern at a literary agency, and we got literally a few manuscripts a WEEK that were thinly veiled accounts of horrific childhood abuse. This is not that. There is a kind of pitiless distance there; Allison acknowledges all the feelings and pain that Bone has, and they’re real and not downplayed or blunted, but there’s no kind of cushion given to her in the narrative to ease them, either. In your standard paperback about Troubled Young People, there would be a kind guidance counselor or charitable neighbor or tough-love aunt that saves her. We sort of get close there for a while with Raylene, but Bone goes to Raylene’s house herself, and ultimately, nothing that her aunt does is enough to rescue her.

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to see Raylene as the author, as Dorothy Allison allowing her literary alter ego to comfort a younger version of herself, and to be the supportive shoulder that she may not have had in real life. But that’s what makes this book the thing it is: Allison doesn’t let herself change the story. No one saves Bone; no one rescues her. She has to learn the hard lesson that love isn’t enough, and that the people who love you will hurt you worst of all. This will maybe be a controversial statement, but I’m going to argue that this book isn’t ‘about’ abuse or its aftermath; it’s about this moment:

“You’re still mad at me, aren’t you?” Mama sounded like she wanted to cry. I bent forward and pressed my mouth to the blanket edge. “Not gonna tell me anything?”

One of the cows moaned out in the dark pasture. I swallowed again. “I’m waiting for you to go home,” I said. “I’m waiting for you to go back to Daddy Glen.”

There was a long silence. “You think I’m going to?” Mama whispered finally.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

There are a lot of scenes one could spend a lot of time discussing; for instance, the brutal rape, or the birth certificate. For some reason I was really fixated on Alma’s breakdown; she’s not the protagonist, but the image of her kneeling in a field of broken glass is a haunting one, and I come back to it again and again. I feel like if there’s something this book is trying to say about love and heartbreak and the burdens that both of them make us bear, it’s in that scene.

“Oh, but that’s why I got to cut his throat,” she said plainly. “If I didn’t love the son of a bitch, I’d let him live forever.”

And in the end, of course, what stays with you (or at least me) is just Bone, in a rocking chair by herself. Someone with her, but ultimately on her own.

I don’t know. That’s all I’ve got. What do you think?

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. Sorry rachel. I’m still trying to collect my feelings about this one. Bone’s relationship with her mother remindedme of my heartbreak with my mom after I came out only daddy glen is the catholic church. Loved the book.

    • I think that’s kind of the point- this book means different things to different people, but it means something to everyone. We’ve all been in the position where we’ve been fucked over and come in second place. For me, that could be coming second to the careers of my parents, for others that’s abuse. But ultimately, we all end up in that rocking chair alone.

    • Um, yes, I am currently sitting here in my life kind of waiting for my mom to come to her senses and come back from crazy land and realize that I am not broken just because I am a lesbian. annnd, I’m thinking that these new Truth Ministry, ex-gay, Exodus International people are Glen. I feel like they’ve stolen my mother kind of like Glen stole Bone’s mom even though she made the choice to go with him. I don’t know.


  2. I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve pretty much been reminded of it every day since. See, I’m a lesbian aunt who is raising her niece and nephew. While my kids didn’t have to go through anything nearly as harrowing as Bone, “ultimately, nothing that her aunt does is enough to rescue her” And that’s like pretty much my biggest fear, that I am not going to be able to do enough to replace their terrible parents.

    I guess I kind of did go into reading this book with the “YA novel” frame of mind. Even though it’s pretty clear there’s not really a happy ending coming, I was kind of blown away with how ANGRY I felt when the last page was read.

    • you sound great and your niece and nephew sound really lucky ultimately. and yes, the ending made me very angry too, but i feel like i would have been angrier with any other ending, because i would have known in my heart it was lying. i guess i don’t believe that things really work any other way.

      • I agree, Rachel–the reason the end of the book provokes so much anger is because Allison bluntly confronts a universal fear with a really haunting image. Human beings are mortified of being alone, especially in their later years. Solitude is something that a lot of people can’t handle, because in our alone moments we realize all that seems to be wrong and unsettling in our worlds, and it punches us in the face. We don’t want to be alone. We go to great lengths not to be, but we will be in the end, no matter how many people surround us. Allison is a genius, this book is heartwrenchingly beautiful.

        ps-Sorry for the nihilism, I’m just wrapping up an existentialist lit class–it’s stripped me of all answers and meaning, pretty much. :|

  3. I think you can’t read this book without it getting personal. It’s that kind of a heartwrecker.

    I want to write a longer response, because this book and Dorothy Allison really mean a lot to me, but it’s gonna take a little while and maybe a beer.

    • yeah i think that’s what’s most amazing about it, is that she managed to take a really specific and personal experience and make it feel extremely universal and relatable. that is a very difficult thing to do but maybe kind of the point of fiction, so i am kind of in awe of her for that.

  4. While this book was heart wrenching on many levels, I am very glad that I read it. I have so many feelings about it but am unable to express them appropriately, so I wont even try.

  5. the first thing i ever read by dorothy allison was in a writing class, it was called “the river of names” and it was fucking intense and heartbreaking and I don’t think it ever left my head. i’m just glad that she exists, i feel like she tells a story that nobody else is telling, and therefore i’ve read everything she’s ever written. She’s just so strong, I guess. I just feel like she knows everything.
    “I know the use of fiction in a world of hard truth, the way fiction can be a harder piece of truth. The story of what happened, or what did not happen but should have — that story can become a curtain drawn shut, a piece of insulation, a disguise, a razor, a tool that changes every time it us used and sometimes becomes something other than we intended. The story becomes the thing needed.”

    • I think “River of Names” is the piece of hers that will stick with me more than anything ever has or ever will. I drive over a bridge every day and hold my breath, hoping it doesn’t collapse under me because of that story.

      Also, I still have not been able to figure out what exactly happened in the barn in the beginning of that piece, which is what really frustrates me considering how explicit and detailed all of the rest of her writing is.

      Dorothy Allison writes in a way that makes the reader feel repeatedly punched in the gut, but like it and want some more. But hate it… but like it.

      The woman lives fifteen miles from my house and it makes me crazy that I still may never get to meet her.

  6. This book was so hard to read. It’s hard to articulate why I felt so deeply for it, mainly because it’s all caught up in personal like Rachel said.
    But yeah, that feeling that the people you love and look up to most in the world can and will hurt you- that’s universal.

    Also I didn’t know it was a ‘lightly fictionalized’ story until I read this post. To come from a childhood like that to be such a writer is pretty fucking incredible.

    • you should read two or three things i know for sure, it talks more about her real life and so is sad but also ultimately really inspiring and perfect and riese is right, she is very strong. it is maybe a good thing to follow this book with?

      • Just ordered it actually. I’ve seen it quoted so often I am looking forward to reading it.

  7. i know this was really hard to read but i just want to share my feeling that i am sad it’s been up for over 12 hours and still has only 7 comments.

    i had a lot of feelings about the part when bone’s uncles beat up glen. i was confused about them and felt weird. also sad. that’s all i have.

    • Agreed, I really thought there would be more commenting, what with “The Great Library of Autostraddle” having 225 members and all.

    • I wanted to comment earlier but didn’t really know how to say what I wanted to say. I still don’t but I said something anyway.

    • I also am disappointed at the lack of posts. But then, I didn’t comment on the last book club post either although I really loved the book. I’m in a IRL book club and I think it’s easier to say stuff about books when it’s face to face.

      My #1 feeling about that scene is fuck yes. I loved the uncles.
      I think the most disturbing scene for me was when Bone masturbated with the hook/chain situation, what was going on there.
      And where was Reese when shit was going down, I was worried about her for reals.
      The ending really pissed me off too @Jessica, I was waiting the whole book for a glimmer of hope and I didn’t get it.

    • I am writing (the rest of) my feelings as we speak now that my real life is out of the way.

      I felt weird when her uncle’s beat up Glen too. My first response was “fuck yeah! he deserves it,” but I knew that they wouldn’t do anything beyond that. I knew they wouldn’t make sure that she was out of that situation. I knew that it would just piss Glen off and that he’d take it out on Bone. It left me disappointed in them, because I wanted them to do the right thing and do whatever it took to make sure Bone was safe. Life doesn’t work that way. People don’t always do the right or can’t do the right thing or don’t know what the right thing is. That’s something that came up over and over and over again in this book. It made it heartbreakingly real. You keep waiting for her to catch a break or for someone to step in, but it doesn’t happen that way and life doesn’t happen that way. The whole thing left me sad and confused and more confused.

    • I think that might be because it just feels so hard to talk about. I mean, it gave me lots and lots of feelings but they were hard to make sense of and I kind of felt like I didn’t want to look directly at them, if that makes sense. I was talking with my mom while I was still reading the book and the topic of our current reads came up and for some reason I just couldn’t make myself tell her what it was about.

      Luckily, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve finished it and I think I’ve got enough distance now that I can say some things.

    • I have not read this book yet but how about I come back and comment in a month after I read it =)

  8. I agree with the people above who said that the book probably means something completely different to every person who reads it. There’s just so much pain there and it really affects you and we all probably have something painful to relate it to. I think that’s what really honest writing can do.

    I was mostly left at the end with a feeling of hopelessness that those vicious cycles of dysfunction within family systems are really difficult to break. Because even though she doesn’t get into it (maybe she doesn’t know the reasons) her mom had to have had something fucked up happen in her childhood to make her so broken. Bone’s mom refused to talk about her family and share those stories with Bone. She probably thought she was protecting her, but I’m sure it caused more problems than it prevented. Maybe it’s because we don’t talk about those things and keep them buried so deep inside that we’re unable to really change the patterns. And maybe it’s something Dorothy Allison is accomplishing with her writing and why even though it’s painful to read we know it’s really important to share those truths and hear them spoken by other people.

  9. “Oh girl. Oh, honey. Baby, what did you do? What did you do?”

    Did these sort of lines from mama make anyone else feel like throwing the book across the room? #rage

    • Oh man, I came pretty close to book throwing a few times. But I hear the library likes their books back in readable condition.

    • Oh yes. I was channeling Madeline Kahn on numerous occasions. “It-it- the f – it -flam – flames. Flames, on the side of my face, breathing-breathl- heaving breaths. Heaving breaths…”

  10. I read this 2 years ago–and I’ve NEVER spoken about it. In my heart, it feels like a really important secret that I’ve been given, to hold and nurture. When at last, I read the last word, I was sure that every breath had left my body and I flashed back to younger self, not abused, but cruelly abandoned. So I closed the pages, put it on my bookshelf, and went about my day.

  11. So I haven’t read this yet and I’m an avid reader. I keep meaning to buy the books everyone mentions on here, but I keep forgetting.
    This post made me want to buy this book RIGHT NOW…
    But it’s almost 10pm and I’m still at work and I doubt I can go somewhere and buy this tonight, luckly amazon is 24/7.
    Thanks for a great review of a book, without a real review of a book, that makes me want to read a book! :)

  12. So. This book. Damn, I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely okay ever again.

    I think one of the reasons the abuse in this book is so horrifying to me in a way that similar (or worse, even) instances of abuse in other books just aren’t has to do with the way in which they’re written. It seems to me that some other authors kind of go big, for lack of a better term, when describing the abuse. They want you to know how bad it is, so they kind of end up beating you over the head with their word choices and imagery. Dorothy Allison, on the other hand, just kind of lets the abuse speak for itself, if you know what I mean. It’s horrible enough on its own, so she doesn’t really need to be so much more intense or vivid when describing that than she is when she’s describing the aunt’s breakdown or her hook-related fantasies. Does that make sense?

    I’m not usually a big fan of “The menfolk need to avenge the injured female family member” thing, but fuckin’ a, I hope Bone’s uncles caught up to Daddy Glen. Someone needs to make him pay.

    Speaking of things I’m not a fan of, I usually don’t go in for demonizing the mother of an abused child. So often, she’s being abused as well and there are other circumstances that just turn the whole family situation into a massive clusterfuck. But in this case? Fuck, do I hate Bone’s mother. She wasn’t being abused. She walked in on him raping her child and chose him over Bone anyway. She reminds me so, so much of my high school best friend’s mother. My friend and her sisters were raped by a friend of the family when they were children (the oldest was 7 when it happened) and a few years later when she remarried, their step-father beat the shit out of them on a regular basis. And she blamed the girls for this. Like Bone’s mom, she was a classic enabler, always making excuses for the men, going on and on about how hard they had it and the girls should just not make it worse for them. Plus, she was just a straight up misogynist, going on about how sneaky and dishonest girls are, and they probably seduced their rapist and just lied about it later. I want to set the whole lot of them on fire (The moms and the step-dads, I mean, not the girls).

    On the non-horrifying side of things, it was really interesting for me to read all her descriptions of growing up in a big interconnected, poor southern family. It sounded so much like all the stories my mom told me about her childhood in West Virginia.

    I’m glad I read this book. I have a master’s degree in Women’s Studies and I always considered not having read this a gap in my education, so it’s good that I plugged the gap!

    Is there somewhere we can suggest a book for the next book club reading? I think “Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang” by Joyce Carol Oates would be perfect.

  13. What struck me most about this book is how real it felt to me. I grew up in the South, and Allison’s descriptions of people and places, the way her characters talk, it all just transported me back to that. (I think my accent came back a little, reading this book.) Not always in a good way, though.

    I love Louisiana, but it has broken my heart numerous times: like when 80% of my state’s population voted for amendment banning same-sex marriage—when black teens were threatened and arrested in Jena, when Katrina hit New Orleans and those who couldn’t get out were just abandoned. At this point y’all, I’m hardly surprised when I hear about a gay guy getting beat up outside a bar or a meth lab blowing up thirty miles from my hometown. But I still get that kinda sucker-punched feeling sometime, cause even though I don’t live there anymore it’s still a part of me.

    And it’s the same feeling I get when I read this book. Allison knows that places can be beautiful and ugly at the same time, they get inside you even when you know they’re not safe to love. “Greenville, South Carolina, in 1955 was the most beautiful place in the world. Black walnut trees dropped their green-black fuzzy bulbs on Aunt Ruth’s matted lawn, past where their knotty roots rose up out of the ground like elbows and knees of dirty children suntanned dark and covered with scars.” (I know what those trees smell like, and my knees used to look like that all summer long.)

    Beautiful as it is you know it won’t stay like that, cause there’s this horrible sense of foreboding hanging over the whole book. You want Bone to finally be safe and happy; you start to tentatively hope along with her that maybe this time Daddy Glen won’t come back and things will stay okay.

    I heard Dorothy Allison speak several years ago at a queer student conference, right around when I was coming out, and I nearly started crying in the audience when she talked about the places we come from and what it means to be safe. I might be able to hide my accent most of the time, but I can’t deny that growing up where and how I did shaped me, near as much as my family did. It taught me that home isn’t always safe and things don’t always get better, but you can get stronger. You can find or make your own place to belong.

    Maybe it’s Autostraddle, for you. Or Louisiana or Tribeca or just that bar with the drag night where you go with friends. For me, it’s partly the South and now Boston and it’s also in books like this where I can catch glimpses of myself in Bone and Raylene.

    So yeah, this book is personal but it’s also REAL and relevant and full of poetry mixed in with the sad grittiness and fury. Mais c’est la fuckin’ vie, y’all.

    • “I might be able to hide my accent most of the time, but I can’t deny that growing up where and how I did shaped me, near as much as my family did. It taught me that home isn’t always safe and things don’t always get better, but you can get stronger. You can find or make your own place to belong.”

      That what you wrote there made my heart full, thanks.

  14. i didn’t sign up for a book club or anything, but i’ve read this book and it certainly made an impression.

    one thing that i sort of stumbled on thinking about this book previously was how allison shows how the abuse is shaping bones’ emerging/developing sexuality. she begins to internalize the abuse and try to claim some kind of power from it. she’s developing a victim mentality and beginning to express it sexually and in other ways in her fantasies and day dreams. the scene where she masturbates with a chain with i think a hook on it? disturbing. and when she fantasizes that people watch daddy glen beat her and feel sorry for her…she’s beginning to learn the trick of playing victim and it’s heart wrenching to think that the abuse is distorting something so fundamental as her sexuality at that point. as the abuse “develops” and becomes a regular thing, daddy glen has a special belt that he keeps just to hit her with…kind of s&m-ish, and again, i think intended to instill the idea that not only is bones’ innocence lost, but her sexuality is becoming twisted by it.

    daddy glen, it’s understood, gets a perverse pleasure out of hurting her. but i was left with the horrifying impression that bone was attempting to turn the abuse around to serve her survival needs, to just be able to get through it, by making the abuse serve her – in her fantasies anyway. trying to derive pleasure from pain, sympathy from imagined onlookers, etc.

    also, maybe for another post, the theme of bone as the outsider (dark hair, dark eyes, made her “different,” bastard/fatherless) or black sheep of the family is what made her an easy target for daddy glen, unprotected by her mother. well, that and her mother being an enabler as was mentioned. maybe annie feels such a sense of “shame” and diminishment over bone’s very existence, it was easy for her to literally abandon her.

  15. Rachel! I had so many feelings when I finished this book I almost sent you a formspring. I was a wreck by the time I finished it!

    Thinking back I felt this book so deeply it almost seems like an emotional trauma now; I can’t remember all the things I wanted to say just how it felt.

    It goes without saying that the abuse was horrific but the thing that resonated so much with me was Bone’s relationship with her mother.

    She tried so hard to be good and to please her mother, even to the point of blaming herself for the abuse. It’s that feeling of knowing that things are awful but being mad at the situation instead of the people enabling it because you love them too much to really be angry with them. It’s probs my own mother issues showing but the notion of children having to be the emotional support for a parent just kills me.

    Also, when Ruth died and Mamma said “I wanted to hit her for talking like she wasn’t worth something on her own. Talking like my love didn’t make her worth something.” This might be the truest thing ever. That urgent need, thinking that you can save someone if you just love them enough; then the sense of failure when you realise you have put all of your energy into loving them whole, only to realise it doesn’t work.

    Also, “things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.”

    I had so many more things to say but I can’t remember them. I loved every page of this book but it might be a while before I could read it again; maybe when I am further from my own issues I can go back to it, but for now it feels like a raw wound.

  16. i really loved this book. even from the first few pages i knew it’d be a keeper (and i mean that literally, i used to only buy books i enjoyed previously). so perfectly written.

    in what universe does this count as YA fiction?

  17. This was a truly fabulous book, and I experienced a lot of feelings while reading it. Mostly of the sad/rage variety. But also I felt that Bone was going to be ok after all the horror. It wasn’t going to break her, and I thought that was the glimmer of hope that wasn’t spelled out for the reader in a traditional ‘happy ending’ format.

    I also agree that this book was different things to different people. It made me sad for a few reasons; first being the most obvious, Bone was treated like shit and her mother was an oblivious douche. But secondly, and most personally, I was sad because I felt that if I went through something like this I wouldn’t have had the expanded family support system that Bone had access to (whether she appreciated it or not). My family is not close, and if there was trouble at home I wouldn’t have had a fall back the way she did. This also made me extra sad because I realize that a lot of children in this very same devastating pattern of abuse right now like right this very second as I am typing this feel like they don’t have an escape. This book made me want to put a warm blanket over all of those children and scoop them up and put them in my pocket. My life probably won’t be the same after reading this. So many thumbs up.

  18. I think what’s so poignant about Allison’s writing is that she doesn’t write her books for you. Regardless of how Bastard made you feel or how you apply it to your life, this book was not intended for you. It doesn’t have a specific aim or moral. All of her writing cuts you to the core and doesn’t tell you how to feel about it.

    Now everybody go read Trash, her collection of short stories.

  19. I think Allison captured that battle between love and reality. She used Bone’s obsession with religion – the ultimate fight between good and evil – to personify that constant struggle. Anney’s struggle between loving her daughter and loving her husband and provider. Each Boatwright’s struggle between his/her own vices and the conflict that created with loving his/her family. Bone’s struggle between wanting to love and protect her mother while needing to love and protect herself. The South itself struggles with an identity crisis in which it presents itself as a beautiful, down to earth place with great food and nice people while behind it you’ll find deep seeded layers of sexism, classism, racism, etc. that seems to define southern culture in a way that it doesn’t in other areas.

    In the end, the struggle is over. Not because one side won out over another, but because Bone realizes that life doesn’t really have sides. The people that hurt you the most are usually the ones you trust and who do or are supposed to love you. Bone’s mom did love her, but wasn’t psychologically capable of protecting her. The Boatwright men who were notorious for drinking, fighting, and sleeping around fiercely loved their families all the same. Life is mostly just full of gray areas that you’re going to have to deal with – on your own – at some point.

  20. also telling was the fact that anney was unconscious when Bone was born. she pretty much stayed that way, in a figurative sense – checked out as far as her relationship to her daughter. Allison spells it our clearly when describing how Bone was listed as a bastard on her birth certificate: “Mama said it never would have happened if she’d been awake.”

    So much would never had happened to Bone if her mother had truly been awake.

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