Challenging the Canon of Adolescent Literature: Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina
Sonja R. Darlington
In July 1992, George Garrett wrote in the New York Times Book Review that he wanted a bugle call alerting the reading public that Dorothy Allison was a major new talent who had arrived on the literary scene. In his words after reading Bastard Out of Carolina, he thought she deserved a seat of honor "at the high table of the art of fiction." His praise culminated in specific recognition for her "exact and innovative language" which he compared to To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. He credited Allison with a style which included a perfect ear for speech, a rich lyrical tone, a full sensory world, and a well-articulated set of complex emotions (p. 3). That same year, such praise for Allison was echoed by reviewers in the Library Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Women's Review of Books. As a college professor whose interest lies in adolescent literature, my attention was piqued by the association Garrett had made between Allison's creative talent and two canonical works which often appear as frequently-read American fiction in high-school literature lists. The bugle call I heard challenged the standard American high school canon. Here was an author who should be heard for two reasons: one, she is a writer whose voice is elegant and forceful enough to overpower the din of the canon wars; and two, as a narrator she speaks clearly to the social and economic structures which disempower females.
The High School Canon
First, placing Allison into a pool from which high-school literary texts are chosen is daunting. A quick look at the debate about English curricular content in an article by Arthur N. Applebee in the September 1992 issue of English Journal suggests that miles must be traveled before women meet parity. As Director of the National Center on Literature Teaching and Learning at the State University of New York at Albany, Applebee notes that, in a national study in 1989, English Department Chairs of public, Catholic, and independent schools listed only one female author in the ten top titles. During the same year another study surveying teachers suggested that their selection included only 16% women and 7% non-white authors. Applebee's conclusion is that English curriculum remains very narrow: titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies remain heavily entrenched, and efforts to broaden the canon over several decades have not significantly improved it. A more recent issue of English Journal suggests that U.S. literature anthologies also clearly underrepresent the work by female authors.
Alan Purves, another researcher and scholar of English curriculum, in "The ideology of Canons and Cultural Concerns in the Literature Curriculum" (1991) maintains that curriculum at the secondary level should provide a broad variety of texts from around the world. Arguably, a major focus should remain on the United States, but Purves suggests that this not be a myopic view. In his discussion on canon, he connects a more global attitude toward literature with the view held by Northrop Frye (1957), who believed that all works of literature are to considered as equally valid, and that it is not the role of criticism or the schools to rank them. By incorporating these theoretical positions into his evaluation of the teaching of literature, Purves makes the point that educators -- teachers, curriculum directors, and others associated with the development of literature curriculum -- should allow for the possibility of expanding the narrow selection of current literary canon.
The Female Social Condition
Second, Allison's text is among the few young adult texts which question the social and economic structures of weakly empowered females, in this case, in a rural community. In Herbert Kohl's newest book Should We Burn Barbar, he argues that radical literature on such topics is hard to find; yet his plea to readers is that they demand radical children's literature. Kohl would cheer for Allison as he does for the teacher about whom he writes that his "stories and unrushed conversations about serious issues were at the center of his most important teaching" (p. ix). Kohl's teacher and Allison have chosen to radicalize the environment by investigating powerful stories that become their tools for teaching and learning. Current statistics provide evidence that Allison has chosen a topic that is of serious concern. A quarter of all American children born today are not part of a so-called nuclear family and this quartile is most likely to be fatherless and living in poverty (Louv, p. 44). John Holt in Escape from Childhood argues that these are the very children who are the least likely group to find an advocate for their ever diminishing rights as individuals. He maintains that legislation must be passed that guarantees children the right to protection from adults who busily serve themselves first. Among children growing up today, females are becoming more and more likely to become heads of impoverished households. Thus it is safe to argue that adolescent fiction must tell a more complete story about the chances of growing up female and poor, if anything is to improve life for this quarter of the American population.
Bastard Out of Carolina does just that. Dorothy Allison's protagonist, Bone, a preteen in Greenfield, South Carolina, during the 1950s sends a strong clear message of just how tough and demeaning a woman's life can become in a mere eight years. She is a female story teller who, although barely able to gain credibility in the adult world, provides a complex history of a poor, Southern family and presides over her own distinctions between life's dreams and nightmares. Bone is strong for someone who is surrounded by drunks, thieves, and crazies; and she is often overwhelmed by the power of her bleak, barren surroundings. Her story, like other good tales, describes the history of her people and illustrates the severity of the human condition, particularly for young females. Readers cannot escape reading about the pain inflicted by her sexually abusive stepfather. They cannot escape reading about the abuse which marks three generations of Boatwright women: her grandmother, her mother, and Bone, the daughter. And, finally, they cannot escape reading about and then acknowledging the economic and social pressures which insure that successive generations of her family inherit similar circumstances and fate.
While providing support for Bastard Out of Carolina as worthwhile young adult literature and suggesting themes that teachers can incorporate in the classroom, I also want to argue that students should be allowed real choices among texts in high school classrooms and libraries. Most likely, some teachers will not be able to make the Bastard Out of Carolina mandatory reading for everyone in a class, because of censorship issues which may surface in their districts. However, these same teachers may be able to interest some students to choose to read it. As a professor of adolescent literature, my efforts are directed at urging preservice English teachers to offer students a choice of texts rather than insisting that an entire class always read the same book. To state the case even more plainly, students should be provided ample opportunity to make responsible choices in their curriculum because ultimately they will be making choices for the rest of their lives. The teacher's job is to make suggestions and present persuasive reasons for various choices. Were it necessary to make an argument for reading Bastard Out of Carolina, the task would be not difficult. My persuasive discussion with students would include five reasons: one, the author knows the craft of storytelling; two, the book is brutally honest about a frequently noted ailment in our society, sexual abuse; three, the protagonist deals with the common problem of coming of age in an uninhabitable family environment; four, the language and ideas suggest that young adolescents possess sophisticated reasoning tools; and five, the book is complex and thoroughly engaging.
Furthermore, aside from Bastard Out of Carolina being a good piece of literature for young adults, a secondary classroom teacher should have little trouble discovering thematic approaches which would make classroom discussions as invigorating as Allison's dialogue. At the most elementary and physical level, students will have comments which connect Bone's experiences with their own first- or second-hand knowledge of sexual misconduct. At the emotional level, instinctual passion, desperate love, and self-hate are feelings which describe the characters throughout the story and are familiar issues in the lives of adolescents. At the symbolic level, the frightening relationship that ties Bone to Glen's claustrophobic grip is contrasted with the traditional love knot, a symbol for love's lasting power. At the spiritual level, Bastard Out of Carolina rocks precariously between childhood daydreams and nightmares: acts of romance contrast with nightmares of the death of innocent babies, worlds of gospel-like revival contrast with moments of darkest apocalypse, and female longings of familial serenity contrast with wishes for the power bestowed on males. And finally, at the aesthetic level, the beauty of childhood and the ugliness of a violent and abusive family become grist for a tale that is paradoxically elegant and reviling.
A closer examination of these multiple strands reveals that Allison's text is well-suited for a young adult audience. For example, a classroom teacher should have little difficulty expanding upon an understanding of physical abuse as well as the equally painful aspects of poverty and hunger, characteristics that are all emblematic of life for poor, agrarian, lower class females. Bone and her family never seem to have enough of life's minimum necessities: money for clothes, food, and shelter. Life has become a stale mixture of biscuits and gravy, second-hand dresses and shoes, and cold rooms and makeshift lodgings. As Bone laments, "We joked about liking it right out of the can, but it was cold because the power company had turned the house off -- no money in the mail, no electricity. That was hunger wrapped around a starch belly "(p. 72). In their poor surroundings, the animal-like behavior of Bone's mother is compared to a big angry mama hen and her father's to a snake that's caught a rat -- like Rilke's "panther," both pace wildly behind the bars of their circumstances.
Equally startling as the depth of poverty and hunger are the intense emotional fears which accompany the animal passions, malignant love acts, and suicide wishes. As a growing child, Bone is surrounded by human actions that make it impossible for her to develop a healthy emotional constitution. She is nearly suffocated by the beatings, drinking, and fighting that she must endure. Her female kin, broken by abuse, are unable to resist re-entering the very relationships that eventually destroy them. Bone's mother is so emotionally dependent on her husband that she refuses to believe Bone's innocence in the sexual abuse that sends her daughter to the hospital. Her Aunt Ruth believes that being pregnant ensures that at least one man thinks that she was once pretty. And her Aunt Alma eventually goes crazy thinking about the women with whom her husband has had sexual relationships. However, emotional scarring is not a women's thing. Bone's stepfather, Glen, never achieves emotional maturity presumably because he has not been loved as child. Her Uncle Earle remains locked into a routine of compulsive drinking and womanizing and understands little about emotional health. And her Uncle Beau is also emotionally stunted. By encouraging students to study particular behavioral patterns, an investigation into the Boatwright lives will suggest that they are caught in a cycle of senseless violence to solve their problems.
Despite the hopelessness portrayed by this Southern rural family, the love knot, as well as Bone's birth certificate, represent higher aspirations and a sense that life can offer something better. The love knot sent as a wedding present for Annie and Glen's wedding day is significant not only as a foreshadowing device but also in that it symbolizes the belief women maintain in superstition and magic. Discreetly hidden, the love knot is supposed to protect the harmony of the household and its magic is one of the few hopes that women have to try to control their misfortunes. Another powerful symbol of hope for a better life is Bone's birth certificate. Annie is relentless in seeking to validate that her daughter was not born an illegitimate child. She risks jail for burning the courthouse in order to provide Bone with a new birth certificate. Annie, like Bone, is aware that they are rejected by their community. Neither teacher, nor sheriff, nor bureaucrat has enough empathy to resist humiliating various members of the family. Therefore, the birth certificate is a powerful symbol of not only a legitimate birth but also of the potential for social legitimacy within their community. Many young adults would find the theme of social legitimacy a particularly significant issue to read and discuss as part of a literature class.
At the spiritual level, the Boat-wrights lurch between daydream and reality, good and evil, and life and death. For example, Bone feels God-like strength when she wishes she could overpower Daddy Glen; and, yet, she wants to kill innocent babies when she is angry as well. Like a moth, she is attracted to the religious promises by local revivalists but also feels the complete spiritual loneliness that accompanies her death wishes. Tragically, she is tested well beyond the endurance of an eight-year-old child. She experiences endless vulnerability, because life is gruesome, sick, and murderous -- populated with bloodsuckers who appear to demand her life as ransom. Her spiritual strength is no match for the inhumanness that she experiences at the hand of individuals who supposedly love her. Students will find that Allison's descriptions of Bone and her environment clamor for their attention and teachers may want to compare Allison's tale to the narrative in Robert Coles' Spiritual Life of Children, which tells of childhood trauma so horrific that reparations seem all but impossible.
Apart from Bone's spiritual world, which refuses to be silenced, the aesthetic proportions of Bastard Out of Carolina also present a connoisseur's eye. Allison contrasts the beautiful and the ugly in countless descriptions about human nature. Language, images, characterizations, setting, and plot all embody an elegance that holds the extreme incongruities of human life in one continuous story. This is a tale that ruthlessly grips the reader in its visual and aural intensity and, at the same time, persuades the reader to admire the aesthetics of well-written fiction. In making aesthetic comparisons to this text, it would be worthwhile for teachers to encourage students to study paintings that express similar stories. Visual artists who come to mind with such horrifyingly tense nightmares in their canvases might be Hieronymus Bosch or Anselm Kiefer. These painters' works depict panoramic views of life that could be used to challenge students to consider the aesthetic qualities of art, particularly when art mirrors the horrors in society.
In summary, students in high school should be encouraged to read Bastard Out of Carolina. Allison's text works on many levels: physical, emotional, symbolic, spiritual and aesthetic. Her craft of story-telling, depiction of sexual abuse, presentation of a meaningful coming-of-age story, awareness of adolescents' reasoning abilities, and engaging art of writing make her a valuable source for adolescents reading. Among the kudos she may be given for her contribution to literature, an important one that needs particular attention is her careful portrayal of childhood abuse. Judith Herman maintains that chronic childhood abuse takes place "in a familial climate of pervasive terror, in which ordinary caretaking relationships have been profoundly interrupted" (p. 98). Herman notes that characteristically, these relationships portray a set of common atrocities: a pattern of totalitarian control maintained through violence and death threats, a capriciously mandated set of petty rules, an unevenly distributed approach to rewards, and the destruction of all competing relationships through isolation, secrecy, and betrayal.
Without a doubt, Bastard Out of Carolina accurately describes such disfunctional family ties. In fact, female college students of mine have repeatedly noted that it was the most difficult book that they had read. They found the depth of the violence, sexual abuse, and fantasies truly harrowing and each one had to set the book aside for a time because she became too emotionally involved. Yet, despite my willingness to play the devil's advocate and argue that such a book ought not to be in schools, each one insisted that adolescents have the right to select this book from their school libraries. As future teachers who were well aware of how and why texts are censored, they unanimously supported students' rights to choose what they read in their school libraries and classrooms. One such student agreed with an article read by the class in the English Journal by Leila Christenbury who noted that controversial topics are beneficial precisely because they "demand that students question and consider and maybe even form some sort of ethical and personal code" (p. 30).
Finally, in addition to Allison's superb exposé of childhood emotional and sexual abuse, her book, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, addresses some of the significant conflicts adolescence experience in the adult world. For example, does an adolescent have the right to choose her/his own reading texts? Clearly, Bone does not agree with the books her librarian recommends.
The librarian gave me Black Beauty, Robinson Crusoe, and Tom Sawyer. On my own I found copies of Not as a Stranger, The Naked and the Dead, This Gun for Hire, and Marjorie Morningstar. (p. 119)
Allison's chiaroscuro approach draws the readers' attention to the difference between what adults and adolescents want to know about the world. In this case Allison may be suggesting that some adults want adolescents to read stories that describe the world as it ideally is -- beautiful, exotic, and innocent. In contrast, adolescents may want to read stories about the world as some experience it -- ugly, lonely, and violent. Although the reader finds out that Bone has also chosen to read The Secret Garden, Allison does challenge the reader to notice that Bone's circumstances are so debased that it may be impossible for her to dream about a secret garden. Similar to the remarkable documentation of inner-city youth who have been denied dreams about secret gardens in Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, this powerful portrayal of poverty, abuse, and child neglect, in a language that is exact and innovative, justifies Allison a place of honor "at the high table of the art of fiction" and also justifies her a place of honor at the high table of adolescent literature. Dorothy Allison radicalizes what educator John Holt would call the adolescent social and economic environment and magnifies a more complete picture about growing up female and poor.
Applebee, Arthur. (1992). "Stability and Change in the High-School Canon," English Journal. 81:5 27-38
Allison, Dorothy. (1992). Bastard Out of Carolina. Penguin Books.
Christenbury, Leila. (1992). "Selection or Censorship: Response to Edwin Greenlace," English Journal. 25-30.
Frye, Northrop. (1957). Sound and Poetry. Columbia University Press.
Garrett, George. (1992). "Bastard Out of Carolina," The New York Times Book Review. 3.
Golding, William. (1954). Lord of the Flies. Coward McCann.
Herman, Judith. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books.
Holt, John. (1974). Escape from Childhood. Ballantine Books.
Kohl, Herbert. (1995). Should We Burn Barbar. The New Press.
Kozol, Jonathan. (1991). Savage Inequalities. Crown Publishers.
Lee, Harper. (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. Lippencott.
Louv, Richard. (1990). Childhood's Future. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Purves, Alan. (1991). "The Ideology of Canons and Cultural Concerns in the Literature Curriculum." WashingtonD.C.: Report for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Salinger, J.D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown.
Sonja Darlington is Director of Secondary Education at Beloit College and the author of articles in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing and the Middle School Journal among others.
Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Darlington, Sonja R. (1996). Challenging the canon of adolescent literature: Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 1, 24-27.