“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 rapist.
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.
“Bastard Out of Carolina” was beloved by critics and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It also generated controversy for its portrayal of sexual abuse, and has appeared more than once on lists of challenged or banned books. A case in Maine made it to the state’s Supreme Court: a parent in the town of Salem insisted that the novel should not be taught; the school board decided that the book could only be taught if paired with less controversial material; the teachers’ union argued against such restrictions and in favor of the academic freedom of individual classroom instructors. The court sided with the school board. Similar complaints have been lodged in other school districts, despite the fact that Allison’s necessary depictions of sexual abuse are brief and, while forthright, not explicit. As she explained in a 2002 interview, “I cut a lot of stuff out . . . All there is in ‘Bastard’ is the emotional impact.”
In 1995, Allison published a slim, beautiful memoir called “Two or Three Things I Know for Sure,” which details similarities and differences between Bone’s youth and her own, including her experience of childhood sexual abuse. She named Bone after a poem she wrote about that abuse, “To the Bone,” collected in “The Women Who Hate Me,” from 1991. Allison, who is gay, has also published a book of essays, “Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature,” from 1994. It opens with the essay “A Question of Class.” “It has taken me most of my life to understand . . . why those of us who are born poor and different are so driven to give ourselves away or lose ourselves, but most of all, to simply disappear as the people we are,” she writes, adding, “I have made the decision to reverse that process.” The meaning of the old stories can change when we hear them from a new storyteller.
Placing a poor white girl at a novel’s front and center isn’t unheard of these days, though some of the most prominent recent examples—Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling,” for instance—have been written by men. It remains true that poor whites, of any age or gender, tend to be presented as peripheral to the main action and, Huckleberry Finn aside, as unsympathetic. These days, people are more likely to use “Deliverance” as shorthand for poor-white pathology than to actually discuss James Dickey’s 1970 novel (or even the famous film adaptation, for that matter). One easy if wrongheaded takeaway from “To Kill a Mockingbird” is that Southern racism comes not from the white middle class but from lazy, lying, no-count clans like the Ewells.
The only major player in “Bastard Out of Carolina” to hail from an upper-middle-class background is Bone’s bullying, insecure, predatory stepfather, Glen. He espouses a brutal individualism—“We don’t need nobody else,” he likes to say—that isolates Annie and Bone from the people they depend on. The Boatwrights, members of the so-called underclass, turn to family and friends for help all the time, because family and friends are all they have—a fact that suggests at least the possibility of a different sort of politics. Earle, Bone’s favorite uncle, just shakes his head when Glen needs a hand but won’t take it: “Hell, we all know we got to help each other in this life.” Bone herself eventually gets the help she needs from her Boatwright kin—namely, Raylene, her gay aunt who lives alone just outside of town and gets by selling and recycling what others have tossed out as trash.
Readers sometimes complain about the book’s conclusion. Bone, abandoned by her mom and churning between a rage that threatens to consume her and a fatalism that tells her to just give up, imagines that her story is, for all intents and purposes, already over, that “I was already who I was going to be.” Some people want a happy ending, or at least a hopeful one. Yet, short of somehow magically erasing everything she’s endured, the novel ends about as well as we could imagine that it would for Bone. She is alive. She is safe with Aunt Raylene, whom we and Bone have learned to love and respect. More to the point, the book that we are reading exists, and it is told in her voice.
Allison, who has devoted much time and effort to L.G.B.T. activism, has spoken in the past of health problems and periods of writer’s block; she has yet to publish a third novel. She did tell one interviewer last year that she is working on a new book, tentatively titled “1971,” “about a woman who’s oldest and dearest friend gives her a very complicated gift”—the year named by that tentative title. She didn’t provide other details, but it seems a safe bet that it will feature characters who have been ignored, who have lived with the shame that comes with being poor, or gay, or abused, of being made to understand each day in America that your story is not worth the telling because you are “trash.” In an interview she gave this year, Allison insisted that “the best American literature is working-class literature. The strongest voices are those voices, those people who have come out of the poor and the disadvantaged circumstances to claim their right to tell a story.”
Near the end of “Bastard Out of Carolina,” Raylene comes upon Bone sneering at a busload of better-off children whom she doesn’t know, as they head to Sunday school. “You’re making up stories about those people,” Raylene says. “Make up a story where you have to live in their house, be one of their family. Look at it from the other side for a while. Maybe you won’t be glaring at people so much.” We know, from the book itself, that Bone will take her aunt’s advice, eventually. The story she tells is one filled with rage, but also generosity and love. Her story inquires, unsuccessfully but unceasingly, into why her mother and stepfather, not to mention the town of Greenville, have acted so cruelly toward her. She has looked squarely at every monstrous thing her parents did to her and yet has resisted the too-pat path of depicting them as monsters. Bone has grown up to become a writer, in other words, and she has presented herself not as trash but as the flawed, honest, complex hero of her story.
Note: This post has been updated to include Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” which has become the second most-read New Yorker article of the year since its publication, in our December 11th issue.
Determining The New Yorker’s “most popular” pieces of the year is a surprisingly fraught process. Should the measurement be page views, visitors, or some other criteria? From a financial standpoint, The New Yorker is increasingly dependent upon its loyal readers, people who come back again and again to our stories and, eventually, subscribe. As a result, when it came to selecting the most-read New Yorker stories of 2017, we decided to base our list on the total number of minutes that readers spent on an article. We felt that was the best measure of what we’re interested in—getting readers to engage deeply with what we do. The resulting list is a diverse collection. It includes a Books piece by Elizabeth Kolbert, about the human mind and the limits of reason; a pitch-perfect Daily Shouts by Colin Nissan, about a call between a 911 operator and someone who works from home; an essay by the actress Molly Ringwald on her experiences of sexual harassment in Hollywood; and, to our surprise and delight, a short story by a relatively unknown author that struck a chord with millions of readers online.
The balance, though, is composed of exclusive reporting: Ronan Farrow’s culture-shifting investigation of the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein; Ryan Lizza’s staggering phone conversation with the short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci; deeply reported profiles by Jane Mayer of Vice-President Mike Pence and Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund tycoon behind the Trump Presidency; Rachel Aviv’s investigation of guardians preying on the elderly; Evan Osnos’s exploration of the risk of nuclear war with North Korea, based on a reporting trip to Pyongyang; Patrick Radden Keefe’s investigations of the financier Carl Icahn and of the Sackler family’s involvement in the opioid crisis; Charles Bethea’s reporting on rumors that the Senate candidate Roy Moore was banned from an Alabama shopping center because of troubling interactions with teen-age girls; and much more. I’m biased, but to me it’s the kind of journalism worth coming back to repeatedly. If you’re not a loyal New Yorker reader now, we hope you become one in the new year. (To stay on top of what we do every day, try downloading our Today app and signing up for our daily newsletter.) Here’s a look back at our most engaging pieces of 2017.
1. “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories,” by Ronan Farrow
Multiple women share harrowing accounts of sexual assault and harassment by the film executive. Read more.
2. “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian
“It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing.” Read more.
3. “Anthony Scaramucci Called Me to Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon,” by Ryan Lizza
He started by threatening to fire the entire White House communications staff. It escalated from there. Read more.
4. “Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies,” by Ronan Farrow
The film executive hired private investigators, including ex-Mossad agents, to track actresses and journalists. Read more.
5. “How Trump Could Get Fired,” by Evan Osnos
The Constitution offers two main paths for removing a President from office. How feasible are they? Read more.
6. “The Danger of President Pence,” by Jane Mayer
Trump’s critics yearn for his exit. But Mike Pence, the corporate right’s inside man, poses his own risks. Read more.
7. “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” by Evan Osnos
Some of the wealthiest people in America—in Silicon Valley, New York, and beyond—are getting ready for the crackup of civilization. Read more.
8. “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” by Elizabeth Kolbert
New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason. Read more.
9. “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War,” by Evan Osnos, David Remnick, and Joshua Yaffa
What lay behind Russia’s interference in the 2016 election—and what lies ahead? Read more.
10. “America’s Future Is Texas,” by Lawrence Wright
With right-wing zealots taking over the legislature even as the state’s demographics shift leftward, Texas has become the nation’s bellwether. Read more.
11. “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea,” by Evan Osnos
On the ground in Pyongyang: Could Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump goad each other into a devastating confrontation? Read more.
12. “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal,” by Adam Davidson
The President helped build a hotel in Azerbaijan that appears to be a corrupt operation engineered by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Read more.
13. “I Work from Home,” by Colin Nissan
“Then I got sucked into watching a YouTube video about meerkats.” Read more.
14. “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights,” by Rachel Aviv
Guardians can sell the assets and control the lives of senior citizens without their consent—and reap a profit from it. Read more.
15. “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency,” by Jane Mayer
How Robert Mercer exploited America’s populist insurgency. Read more.
16. “The Addicts Next Door,” by Margaret Talbot
West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the country. Locals are fighting to save their neighbors—and their towns—from destruction. Read more.
17. “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” by Patrick Radden Keefe
The Sackler dynasty’s ruthless marketing of painkillers has generated billions of dollars—and millions of addicts. Read more.
18. “Rex Tillerson at the Breaking Point,” by Dexter Filkins
Will Donald Trump let the Secretary of State do his job? Read more.
19. “#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement,” by Rachel Monroe
What began as an attempt at a simpler life quickly became a life-style brand. Read more.
20. “Harvey Weinstein’s Secret Settlements,” by Ronan Farrow
The mogul used money from his brother and elaborate legal agreements to hide allegations of predation for decades. Read more.
21. “Carl Icahn’s Failed Raid on Washington,” by Patrick Radden Keefe
Was President Trump’s richest adviser focussed on helping the country—or his own bottom line? Read more.
22. “Locals Were Troubled by Roy Moore’s Interactions with Teen Girls at the Gadsden Mall,” by Charles Bethea
Rumors have swirled for years that, in the early eighties, the Alabama Senate candidate was banned from a shopping mall for bothering teen-age girls. Read more.
23. “All the Other Harvey Weinsteins,” by Molly Ringwald
“I have had plenty of Harvey Weinsteins of my own over the years, enough to feel a sickening shock of recognition.” Read more.
24. “Weighing the Costs of Speaking Out About Harvey Weinstein,” by Ronan Farrow
Annabella Sciorra, Daryl Hannah, and other women explain their struggles with going public. Read more.
25. “Michael Flynn, General Chaos,” by Nicholas Schmidle
What the removal of Flynn as the national-security adviser reveals about Donald Trump’s White House. Read more.