“Bastard Out of Carolina,” Dorothy Allison’s début novel, first
published twenty-five years ago, begins with sneers and mocking eyes.
Ruth Anne (Bone) Boatwright, the novel’s narrator, is recounting things
she couldn’t possibly remember—about her mother, Annie, becoming
pregnant with her at the age of fifteen; about Annie’s serial attempts
to get the literal red-ink stamp of illegitimacy removed from infant
Bone’s birth certificate; about the lawyers and courthouse clerks who
laugh at those attempts. The laughter is meant to make sure that Annie
and her child know their place, and stay there. “We knew what the
neighbors called us,” Bone says. “We knew who we were.”

Who the Boatwrights are, according to the powers that be in
nineteen-fifties Greenville, South Carolina, where the novel is set—and
where Allison was born—is “white trash.” That classist and racist slur
is still hurled routinely today, even by those who mean to express their
uncompromising opposition to classism and racism. Each time it’s
uttered, it tells an ugly story about who counts and who doesn’t. One
way of reading Allison’s novel is as a story about the power of such
stories—the ones that are told about us, the ones that we learn to tell
about ourselves—and the way that they can expand our possibilities, or
steamroll them.

Nearly all of Allison’s characters tell stories as way of explaining
their world. Bone grows up surrounded by boyish-looking, childish-acting
uncles and aunts who seem “old, worn-down, and slow, born to mother,
nurse, and clean up after the men.” Boatwright women laugh until they
weep recounting the only time that Bone’s biological father dragged
himself over for a visit: “You peed all over the son of a bitch!” Aunt
Alma hoots. “It was like you were putting out your mama’s opinion,
speaking up for her there on his lap.” Bone invents stories of her own,
often to counter the oppressive stories others want to tell about her.
On her first day at a new school, she sees “pity and contempt as old as
the red dust hills” in the eyes of her teacher. When the woman asks Bone
her name, Bone dreams a lie up on the spot. “ ‘Roseanne,’ I answered as
blithely as if I’d never been called anything else. ‘Roseanne Carter. My
family’s from Atlanta, just moved up here’ . . .  Everyone believed me,
and I enjoyed a brief popularity as someone from a big city who could
tell big-city stories,” she tells us. Later, Bone creates a game called
“Mean Sisters,” in which she and her female cousins imagine other lives
for themselves, playing siblings of infamous male outlaws and starring
in adventures of their own. Bone has a friend, Shannon Pearl, whom she
admires because she is such a great, gruesome storyteller. (Shannon and
Bone first appeared together in “Gospel Song,” from Allison’s 1988
short-story collection, “Trash.”) “Shannon’s stories had the aura of the
real—newspaper headlines and autopsy reports—and she loved best little
children who had fallen in the way of large machines.”

Bone’s real story is more terrifying than that. She has secrets that
she’s kept for years, ricocheting between self-blame and confusion,
between fear and shame. Now she feels compelled to finally say what’s
happened, and she needs for us to hear it. Bone’s stepfather, Daddy
Glen, abused her—verbally, physically, and sexually—from when she was
about seven years old until just before she turned thirteen. (We see the
sexual abuse only twice: the first time Bone is raped and the last. It’s
enough.) Bone’s mother, meanwhile, has rationalized her daughter’s
broken bones and looked the other way from worse abuses, which at least
a few extended family members have long suspected. Far too late, Annie
chooses, at last, to protect her daughter, in the only way she seems to
know how: she flees Greenville—but not with Bone, whom she leaves in the
care of an aunt. She leaves with Glen, that is to say, her daughter’s

The novels bears an epigraph from James Baldwin that offers a universal
prediction but which seems aimed most squarely at Annie: “People pay for
what they do and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to
become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.” With this
in mind, Allison’s second novel, “Cavedweller,” which considers whether
a mother can ever earn the forgiveness of children she has endangered
and abandoned, reads like a thematic sequel to her first.