Dorothy Allison's novel brings to light the details and realities of physical and sexual abuse. Bone, is the protagonist, "I've been called Bone all my life, but my name's Ruth Anne," and her longstanding nickname was bequeathed upon her while she was a baby, as when her mother brought her home from the hospital, her Uncle Earl said she was no bigger than a knucklebone and Deedee, her cousin, pulled back the blanket to see, "the bone."
Bone has a natural appreciation for God's given beauty, "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 the elbows and knees of dirty children suntanned dark and covered with scars. Weeping willows marched across the yard..." Bone's mother was a hard working, non-drinking 15 year old girl who was devastated when her baby's father was never named, "So Granny gave one and Ruth gave another, the clerk got mad, and there I was - certified a bastard by the State of South Carolina." Her mother, Anne, pulls herself up out of bed, just eight days after giving birth and returns to work as a waitress. At the age of 16 Anne takes her baby and returns to the courthouse; she says her daughter's birth certificate is torn across the bottom and she needs another one. The clerk hands her a paper, with "Illegitimate," stamped across the bottom and tells her, "the facts have been established," while twittering women stare at her and one of them mouths, "some people."
Anne walks out of that courtroom with her baby held so tight she begins to wail. Anne comes back the next year to the immense enjoyment of the darkly perverse court clerk, to no avail. She even hires a lawyer who tells her there is nothing he can do, "Bastard," Anne hisses at the lawyer.
Lyle Parsons, a gentle, soft spoken, prettily handsome boy, takes Anne's hand and she quits work at his insistence, and is soon pregnant with Reese. Lyle dies, while on the route of one of his work shifts. It was one of those days when the sun shines as the rain pours down, and Lyle's truck spills over, with him falling out and onto the pavement with no obvious injuries. It was hard to believe he was dead, except the back of his head was crushed into the gravel.
Anne howls like a dog, when she sees the sheriff's car pull up. She knew already. Anne, is at 19, probably about the prettiest widow in South Carolina. Both her girls are at the funeral, Reese is still just a baby; and to support them Anne begins working the mills but her health can't take all the labor and the dust, so she goes to waitressing at The White Horse Cafe, where all the men, from truckers to judges like her. "Mama smiled, joked, slapped ass, and firmly passed back anything that looked like a down payment on something she didn't want to sell."
It is Earl, Anne's brother, who sets her up with Glen Waddell, a boy of 17 from a good family, but who was shy and unnervingly distant. The way Allison writes it, she makes it clear it is no one's fault when an abuser enters a family as it can be hard to tell, for some, right away and by the look in his eye, what kind of man he is. The Boatwrights are all infamous for their tempers and they seem to take to Glen just fine except a couple of them, especially Granny, who does not like Glen; saying there is something the matter with him.
None of the Boatwright men, with their dark hair and godly figures, seemed to have trouble with women, saying "no" to them. Earl's Catholic wife left him taking their three daughters with her. This earnestly surprised and embittered Earl as he didn't see what difference it made as long as he didn't marry any of the others. She seemed to think it made a difference and he never got over that she left him.
Granny speaks to Bone about Boatwright men, " 'Oh Bone!' she laughed. 'Maybe you should plan on marrying yourself a blond just to be safe. Huh?' " But for whatever hair color Glen has, and I don't think Allison ever says, only that his eyes are blue, there is something not right about him in a manner based on nuance at first. Granny never likes Glen and thinks there is something ill in his love toward people.
Bone, herself, cannot tell either way, as she describes him from a picture, "Mama's eyes were soft with old hurt and new hope; Glen's eyes told nothing. The man's image was as flat and empty as a sheet of tin in the sun, throwing back heat and light, but no details - not one clear line of who he really was behind those eyes."
Anne dates Glen for two years and in that time, Glen showed no signs of being abusive, other than there being something about his demeanor, that does not sit right with some people. Uncle Beau didn't like him as he didn't trust a man who didn't drink, "and Glen was as close to a teetotaler as the family had ever seen."
The night Anne was giving birth to her third child, Glen's son, Glen sat in the Pontiac, outside the hospital, smoking Pall Malls and talking to Bone, who is in the backseat with blankets, cokes and her sister Reese; as if Bone were an adult. " 'I know she's worried,' he said. 'She thinks if it's a girl, I won't love it. But it will be our baby, and if it's a girl, we can make another soon enough. I'll have my son...' "
Then, Glen molests Bone in the car, by masturbating against her and bruising her. Bone never tells anyone and instead develops an enclosed world of shame and masturbation, at an age where she should hardly know of such sexual encounters much less be experiencing them. It is unknown if Reese is abused in the same manner as Bone by Glen, as Bone never talks to Reese about it, but Reese also develops a private life of extreme fantasy, masturbation and orgasm at an abnormally early age. The abuse seems to cause the girls to have too much of a private life.
The baby Anne has the night Bone is first abused dies at the hospital and Anne can no longer have children. Anne does not know her daughters are being molested but she does know her daughter is being beaten black and blue. "My collarbone fused with a lump the second time it was broken - ...In the hospital the young intern glared and ordered lots of x-rays. 'How'd she break her coccyx?' He demanded of Mama over the sheaf of x-rays when we were ready to go home...'Her what?'
'Her tailbone, lady, her ass. What have you been hitting the child with? Or have you been throwing her up against the wall?' "
Bone cannot tell the doctor she is being abused because she does not know him. She knows her mama; her smell, her fingers, the way her eyes crinkle when she smiles, the sound of her voice. " 'You can tell us,' he said in his stranger's voice." Anne takes Bone and Reese to aunt Alma's but two weeks later they were back with Daddy Glen who swore he would change.
They move from house to house every several months as Daddy Glen cannot keep a job or positive contacts for very long with anyone he works with. He gets into fights with peers at work and never seems to have his jobs come together. Bone goes from school to school, house to house, and the only friend she keeps for very long is an albino outcast, who is just a very ugly child. It is never described what exactly makes her ugly as albinism is unusual but should never make anyone less beautiful. There is just something about the way Shannon Pearl comes together that turns people's stomachs to look at her.
Shannon is bullied by the universe with the exception of her parents and Bone. Her mother sews costume decorations for members of gospel revivals. Bone pulls Shannon into the same seat as herself and Raylene, while they are all on the schoolbus. No one would let Shannon sit next to them and Bone pulled Shannon down next to her with Raylene looking at Bone as if to say, "Have you lost your mind?" Bone figured the Boatwright reputation would protect from the other kids doing anything about it, and she was right.
The two girls have a very adult view of sex considering they are about 10. "Shannon giggled and waved me out on the porch. 'Sometimes Mama needs a little hand on her throttle. You know what I mean?' She laughed and rolled her eyes like a broken kewpie doll.' Daddie has to throttle her back down to a human level or she'd take off like a helium angel.'
I couldn't help myself. I laughed back, remembering what Aunt Raylene had said about Mrs. Pearl - 'If she'd been f-cked right just once, she'd have never birthed that weird child.' " But Shannon, with all her patience and all her hatred, was not long for this world as she picks up lighter fluid while at a BBQ and sprays the fire so that it connects to the liquid canister, gets sucked inward for one silent second, and then explodes outward in a huge ball of flame. Shannon inhales the flame as it simultaneously encompasses her body, takes a few swaying steps as she stumbles from side to side and then collapses.
With the loss of her friend, Bone becomes even less secure of her world. Shannon did seem smart. She had a connection with Bone, that when lost, left the latter more isolated. Also, Bone was the only witness of the event in its entirety.
Bone's uncles are shown her bruises, as Aunt Raylene catches Bone in the bathroom, notices blood on the back of her panties and lifts up Bone's skirt. "Sweet suffering Jesus!" Bone is made terrified by the abuse being discovered. Glen is beaten up severely in turn, but that doesn't seem to stop him from coming to find Bone and hurt her even more. The details of the abuse are very hard to write about.
Allison shows a lot of practicality and courage in detailing her story. Bone is removed to live with an aunt, who lives in a rural location. The family is divided as wherever Anne goes, Glen will follow and it makes more sense for them to split up than to stay together. Bone gets good grades at school, this entire time. She is not yet thirteen when the novel ends. My favorite part is when that goddamned courthouse mysteriously burns to the ground. The word "Illegitimate" turned to dust.
By Sarah Bahl