“Heat and Rage and the Sweet Stink of Broken Flowers”: Place Informs Character in Bastard out of Carolina

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Regional writing provides entrance to a space that’s uniquely characterized by its setting. I’m drawn to this type of work for the same reasons I like to write about place. Florida is my touchstone, a space that conjures feelings of warmth and bitterness. When I write about places and my queer body in those spaces, I am thinking about these dualities. In turns, I’m both enamored with and sickened by memories of home. When a person documents place in their work, I follow its trajectory much like I’d follow the narrative arc. I want to know what the world will tell me. I want to see place set down as a mirror to nostalgia. Regional writing says: tell me where your home is, and I’ll show you why it matters.

In Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, home is both cultivated and destroyed alongside characters that hold landscape against their bodies. Home is a beating heart. It’s a branding. Like the hungry, tenacious families Allison creates, her landscapes are just as alive and wanting.

Bastard out of Carolina opens on an arresting image of South Carolina in full spring bloom. Allison’s young protagonist, Bone Boatwright, describes the raw beauty of the Carolinas alongside descriptions of her family. Every sentence contains an introduction to a relative; every sentence holds instances of place paired up against those households.

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.

Readers are introduced to a bevy of Boatwright aunts, uncles, and cousins who are intimately connected to their homes. Aunt Alma’s fractured identity becomes synonymous with her myriad children and the rambling, dirt-filled household that supports them. Aunt Raylene, Bone’s least understood family member, projects a queerness that merges with the river that twists alongside her property; a river that holds hidden, unexplored depths. As I read this kind of queerness, I find myself noting how bundled up identity becomes in ideas of home. Queerness becomes a thing recognizable because of how it’s othered from the world around it.

Because the idea of self is so entrenched in the landscape, the gnarled confusion of Bone’s parentage becomes tangled up in setting. For Bone, “home” is loaded terminology. It contains feelings of safety as well as fear and danger. Interacting with the Boatwrights provides reassurance and stability. There are generous descriptions of food grown in backyards, cooked lovingly by generations of women in a single kitchen. When Bone feels unsafe, depictions of place are harsh and unforgiving. Bone’s fear means the landscape showcases decrepitude. Houses become threatening and perilous, ready to collapse on the inhabitants.

The lawns were dry, with coarse straggly grass and scattered patches of rocky ground. There were never any trees or bushes. Mama would sometimes put in flowers or spade up a patch in the back for vegetables that somehow never got planted before we would move again, but the houses always looked naked and abandoned.

The rest of the Boatwrights experience landscape change in a similar vein. When Aunt Alma has a breakdown after her youngest child dies and her husband abandons her, the yard suffers the consequences. Bits of glass pepper the grass alongside shards of broken crockery. Forks are jabbed into the dirt. Blood seeps from self-inflicted cuts on her aunt’s arms, described by Bone as nearly indistinguishable from the mud that paints the patio. Familial collapse is accompanied by residential dysfunction. When family goes wrong, place goes wrong.

Place also functions to show familial differences. When Bone visits her Aunt Rayleen, we see how othered she is from the rest of the Boatwrights. Her home is rarely visited. There are no kids there to play with, and she’s the only female relative who remains unmarried. There are subtle glimpses of the character’s queerness. It’s embedded in how she’s described: her short hair, her bluntness, her secretive life outside the family.

The Greenville River curved around the outcropping where her weathered old shotgun house stood, and from the porch that went around three sides, you could watch the river and the highway that skirted it. Raylene kept the trees cut back and the shrubs low to the ground. “I don’t like surprises,” she always said. “I like to see who’s coming up on me.”

In a scene where Bone visits her stepfather’s parents for a barbecue, there’s a clear divide between the two groups. As she and her sister overhear her stepfather’s family badmouthing the Boatwrights, Bone abandons the gathering. She walks through a blooming field of roses, growing untended. “Trash steals,” someone says. Bone considers what that means. How one might steal from the world around them. Grabbing handfuls of the petals, she crushes them against herself, dripping them onto her body. They slip silkily under her clothes, she slides them down into her underwear to feel them against her bare flesh. Bone spills her anger and despair into the crushed flowers. She becomes one with the landscape, tender and thorny and wild.

The day that Bone’s mother marries her stepfather, storms brew darkly on the horizon. In other sections, home is presented as the calm before the storm. Directly before Bone is assaulted by her stepfather, spring is described as surging up in the yard, ripening with lush new life. After the attack, the earth is hostilely scorched, sun burning the life from everything. The wind dies, the plants are stunted and shriveled. When her mother comes to see her for the last time, Bone is still working to acclimate to this new world.

The sound of the river filled the night. My crying eased and then stopped. Mama rocked back on her heels. A jaybird dropped off the porch lintel and streaked up into the darkening sky. The dog loped out to nose its track in the dusty grass.

At the end of this narrative, Bone sits and watches evening close in around the house. Full dark, the story completes.

As I read, I’m incapable of separating Bone’s family from the places they inhabit. Home informs not only how they live, but how they choose to behave. Place enables me to discover what’s important to them. The Boatwrights are the plants they grow, the things they eat, the dirt caked up under their fingernails. Home is who I listen for in Bastard out of Carolina.