I wanted to read this book because I wanted to learn something. The power of literature over all other forms of art is that it places you directly inside the minds and worlds of other people and you are an active participant. This is why books are still held in the highest regard concerning an education. And that’s why I like to read because I want to know about something that it would otherwise be impossible for me to know anything about.
And that’s why I was so let down by this book.
Of course I first need to ask myself why I even felt it important to read a novel about a child abuse victim growing up in South Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s. As a male who grew up in Massachusetts in the 1970’s and 80’s, who had no extended family, not siblings, and was not a victim of any physical abuse, I couldn’t be much further from this subject matter if I tried. And that’s something I knew I needed to keep in mind while reading this novel because I knew I was going to come across situations and emotions that I’ve never had and that are unique to people who have been abused like Bone has. I was also conscious of the gender divide and though things like that shouldn’t have to matter in this day and age, it would be foolish for anyone to assume men and women see the world the same way.
Needless to say I felt prepared and since I’m also a very careful reader who doesn’t rush through a book and spends almost as much time thinking about what I’ve read as I do actually reading it, well, I felt up to the challenge to tackle some horribly dark and mostly foreign subject matter.
The book gets off to a great start too. The characters, in their formative infancy on the page, are lively, rowdy, prideful, and interesting. Anney especially shined as someone who I was excited to get to know through the course of the book. There was a good texture to the way of life of a poor, white southern family, a group of near criminal outcasts whose last name, the Boatwrights, seemed to be a clever way to turn the phrase ‘capsize’ (as in a boat the isn’t up right has capsized) right-side up and hint that this was a ship slowly sinking.
I continued to feel like I was in good hands when Allison describes the first instance of abuse. The scene happens so abruptly, so shockingly right there in the parking lot in the front seat of the car, and danger had been alluded to quite artfully with the images of Glen’s big, strong, fast, hands that I actually felt the confusion Bone would have felt. This is a remarkable scene and I’ll never forget it – it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.
And to see Allison completely waste this opportunity to tell a better story, to waste these characters on melodrama, on cliche, on pat standards, well … it makes me mad because it cheapens the horrible abuse Allison experienced herself in real life.
Now I didn’t know hardly anything about Allison when reading the novel, but I did know that she is an abuse survivor and that this book grew from her own experiences. I didn’t know anything beyond that, however, and so I read the book without that influencing me. I only carried on trusting the author to know what she was talking about and that she would have some insight onto the subject matter. To say I felt sort of betrayed when the book was over, especially after reading that disaster of an afterword, would almost be an understatement.
Here are the major problems with this book:
The wrong character is the narrator. Bone is at times a fascinating character and what happens to her is central to the plot, but told from her point of view just doesn’t work. First of all it doesn’t work because I never felt like I was really getting the point of view of a little girl – rather I felt like I was getting what an adult writer wanted a little girl to notice and to say and to do. One moment Bone is luxuriating in the warm smells of her mother’s odor (a perfectly valid thing for a child to remember), but the next she’s wise beyond her years and seems to understand far more about what’s going on around her than I could believe. Not to say I think kids are dumb, but the things Bone noticed and said seemed to convenient. She didn’t feel ‘real’ or ‘genuine’.
And of course Allison actually admits to making Bone not real in her terrible afterword. Allison clearly states the Bone is the character she wishes she had been when she herself lived through the abuse she suffered as a child. The fact that Allsion even admitted this shocked me but didn’t surprise me because never did I feel like I was learning anything about the process of this poor girl turning into a terribly angry and hateful young woman because Allsion created a character who never would have become that kind of person.
Allsion says she didn’t want to write a biography, and that’s fine, but what she wanted to was to teach people about this cycle of abuse and to strip away the prejudices of the south and of abuse victims and to use art to help people. But how can she do any good if she takes her own experiences, throws them all right out the window and creates characters the exact opposite of what she knows anything about?
It’s one thing to invent a new character that doesn’t resemble yourself, but it’s another to try reach people who have been through the same things you have by giving them a person they wish they are but aren’t. It’s not going to help anyone – its like creating a comic book superhero – fantasy is all that is serving.
There are deeper problems, however.
The emotions are not earned. We have a lot of jigsaw pieces of ragged emotion – Bone is hateful, Bone is angry, Bone loves her momma, then hates her momma. But that’s all we get. We get told what Bone is feeling but there is nothing connecting what she feels with the outside world. We get told Bone hates everyone, and then in the next scene she’s at her Aunt’s house playing records into the night. Now I’m willing to accept a healthy dose of adolescent angst and emotional volatility and irrationality, but I’m not buying that here. Allison did not bridge the divide between what makes Bone feel the things she feels with how she does feel. All we get is ‘Bone is mad’ because ‘Bone was abused’.
Oh, I know that sounds bad too, and I understand that unfortunately the abuse a person goes through can mark them and define them in their own minds, but it doesn’t work in a work of fiction – a work of fiction Allison wanted to create because she didn’t want to write a biography.
In fact I’ll go as far to say that I don’t think Allison actually knows what she feels about her own real-life experiences because she also says that when asked by reporters how she feels when a school bans her book from the high school curriculum, she says that instead of telling the reporter she’s upset to hear that, she instead takes a deep breath and says ‘well, it’s understandable.’
Ms. Allison, maybe you don’t understand how fiction works, so let me remind you that when you take that deep breath and force yourself to force down your real feelings, you are cheating the reader because the reader only cares about what you really feel and really think – not what we think society and good adult company expects to say and how to behave.
In short, I mistrust Allison a lot and it’s why I feel the whole book is disingenuous.
And what a wasted opportunity too. She has all the pieces here for a great book – a book that could rival ‘The Color Purple’ in stature – she has some really good characters like Anney and Earl and she has a difficult but very good ending with the decision Anney makes. This book could have been great.
I would have written this in the third person and I would have spent a lot more time getting to know Anney because the only way to make the ending work is to know Anney, to know her indecision, her fears, and her strengths. But we only see Anney through Bone.
Had this book not been about so tragic and important of a subject as this sort of abuse I wouldn’t be so disappointed in the outcome, but Allison has done a disservice to more than just people who have been abused and are left reading about a character wholly unlike themselves in empathy – the book does a disservice to someone who wants to understand better, someone like me who is so far removed from the subject matter, from the culture, from almost everything Allison knows intuitively but swallows down out of sight because she hasn’t come to terms with or has thought through what this book is really about and what it’s power could have been.
Allison cheats us. The book is dishonest, melodramatic, and far from insightful. It’s a damn shame