Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina begins with the novel’s young narrator, Ruth Anne, nicknamed Bone, introducing herself and her family: the Boatwright clan, an expansive group of “devilish, fun-loving, obstreperous, dirt poor, [and] violent” aunts, uncles, and cousins (Kenan 65). After sailing through the windshield of Uncle Travis’ Chevy in an accident, 15-year old Anney Boatwright gives birth to Bone while she is still unconscious. Bone’s Granny and Aunt Ruth are left to fill out the legal paperwork; when they provide two different last names for Bone’s father the clerk becomes suspicious and certifies the narrator “a bastard” (Allison 3). When she wakes up, Anney feels that her daughter has been unfairly tarnished and tries several times to have the birth-certificate, which has the bright red word “illegitimate” printed on it, changed - but she is unsuccessful.
After two years, Anney remarries Lyle Parsons, a gentle and loving boy who fathers her second daughter, Reese. Unfortunately, Lyle dies in a car accident soon after Reese's birth. Deeply wounded, Anney begins working at a diner, where she eventually meets Glen Waddell, a “nervous” boy of seventeen (Allison 10). Glen has deep insecurities and feels drawn to Uncle Earle, whose dangerous antics and rough manner speak to a confidence and masculinity Glen desperately wants to possess. After a few months of working with Earle at a plant, Glen becomes noticeably stronger and muscular. He begins visiting Anney at the diner almost every day; she begins to think Glen would make a good father for her little girls.
One day, while Anney is cooking at the diner, the radio announces that a fire is destroying the courthouse and records hall. Elated, Anney rushes home to burn Bone’s birth certificate, hopeful that she can now get a copy without the damning word “illegitimate” stamped on it. Anney and the other Boatwrights scattered across town laugh.
Bone describes the only time and place that still feels “so much like home”: Greenville, South Carolina in 1955 (Allison 22). At five years old, Bone is “a solemn watchful child with long thin bones” (18). She and her many cousins spend the summer under the watchful eye of their Granny, who sits them down on her shaded porch and shares all the family legends. Granny talks about her grandfather, a Cherokee Indian, and all the uncles and aunts; the only person she refuses to speak about is Bone’s father, whom Granny ran out of town. Bone stands behind her grandmother, listening and watching the other children play. During this time, Bone is very close to her mother, who lovingly brushes her hair each night.
Bone describes her uncles—Earle, Beau and Nevil—whom she “worships” (22). Confident and rambunctious, her uncles have an ease with tools and weapons; they carry gleaming knives and have big toolboxes packed with “every imaginable metal implement” (22). Bone emulates them, wearing their old work shirts and carrying around a discarded knife. Though they are known as dangerous men around town, the uncles are very gentle and loving with Bone.
Glen and Anney grow closer over the next two years. He comes over to smoke cigarettes with her in the evenings and she goes to watch him work at the RC Cola plant at the end of each day. Bone describes Glen’s apparent strength and reveals that he is known for his “temper and his hands” (35). Overwhelmed by his affections, Anney becomes a “giggling, hopeful girl” (35). One day, Glen proposes to Anney while she is sitting in her car with Bone and Reese. Before she can even accept, Glen embraces all of them tightly before pulling Anney out of the car and spinning her around the parking lot. Glen becomes extremely emotional: crying, screaming, and slapping the top of the car.
Anney’s sisters are not completely convinced of Glen’s ability to be a good husband and father. Meanwhile, Granny is outspoken about her dislike of Glen, comparing him to a “junkyard dog waiting to steal a bone” (Allison 37). When Glen comes to take the family on a picnic, Granny refuses to go. The others have to convince her to even pose for a family photograph with Anney's new fiancé.
Bone narrates the story of Bastard out of Carolina in the past tense, from some undisclosed time in the future - which establishes the nostalgic tone of the novel. This also means that the narrator has knowledge of future events: even though the story starts with Bone's birth, she comments that the first time she saw one of her uncles sober was when she was seventeen. She also provides psychologically complex insights into various characters, easily pinpointing and describing her mother’s shame and Glen’s insecurities in a way that suggests an adult’s level of understanding. Yet despite the wisdom of age, Bone is still able to describe the world as she saw it back then and tells her story through eyes of a child. One critic writes that Allison presents a “true child’s voice and experience." This combination of knowledge, sharp psychological insight, and child-like honesty produce a powerful and penetrating portrait of the many characters that fill the novel. Bone's voice is both hard and vulnerable, worldly and naïve.
In the first several chapters of Bastard Out of Carolina, Bone sketches a portrait of her family, which one critic describes as brimming with “liquored-up, malevolent, unemployed, undereducated, country-music-listening, over-sexed, foul-tempered men; and long-suffering, quickly aging, overly fertile, too-young-marrying, hardheaded women” (Kenan 65). The family’s low socioeconomic status becomes an underlying theme that shapes Bone’s reality. She intimates that neither her grandmother nor her aunt “could write very clearly” (Allison 2) and reveals that her mother left school at the age of thirteen (4). The wider Greenville community thinks of the Boatwright clan as “No-good. Lazy. Shiftless.” This disdain deeply disturbs Anney, who does everything she can “to deny what Greenville County wanted to name her” (Allison 4).
Bone’s illegitimate birth encapsulates the community’s prejudices against the Boatwright family. Her birth certificate, clearly stamped with big red letters, becomes a symbol of shame and inadequacy. The clerks at the county courthouse take cruel pleasure in repeatedly denying Anney an unmarked certificate. As Anney's lawyer later explains, the clerks actually “look forward to [Anney] coming in” (Allison 9). Bone absorbs Anney’s anxiety about her illegitimate birth and identity. She notes that she looks nothing like her mother and aunts and, since she has no information about her father, anxiously concludes that she doesn't “look like anyone at all” (Allison 30). Bone feels unmoored by her father’s absence and looks to the Boatwright clan to confirm her identity.
Bone, who wears her uncles' old work shirts and rarely brushes her hair, does not conform to stereotypical notions of femininity. She chooses to emulate her uncles instead of her mother or her aunts. Bone admires how young and energetic her uncles look and describes the women “worn-down” (23). She paints a world in which men do as they want and women “clean up after the men” (23). Sensing the unfairness of these relationships, Bone envies her uncles’ freedom and occasionally wishes she “had been born a boy” (23). This sexism becomes yet another oppressive factor in forming Bone's toxic environment, along with the cycle of poverty and her illegitimate birth.
In the novel, Glen Waddell, Anney’s second husband, proves to be violent, abusing Bone both sexually and physically. The first several chapters reveal a lot about Glen that foreshadows this seeming fracture in his personality. Bone describes the gentleness with which Glen treats her and Reese as “studied,” suggesting that his paternal instinct is not natural (33). Moreover, Bone focuses on “Glen’s temper and his hands" (35), noting that he is “muscular and strong” (34). More concerning than his brute strength is his ability to manipulate: when he proposes to Anney, he gushes at her tentative and indecisive answer, screaming, “ I knew you’d say yes” (36). He also acts possessively, telling Anney and the girls, “You’re mine, all of you, mine” (36). Granny’s mistrust of Glen confirms his possessive nature; she compares his desire for Anney to a dog eyeing a bone (37).