book by Dorothy Allison
Annotation by Heather Luby
Greenville, South Carolina is the setting for this novel and it is also the “heart” of the novel. Dorothy Allison creates a rich and wild background for her characters that not only grounds the reader in the atmosphere of the book, but it also tells us something about the people that populate her novel. Setting is a key element in fiction and in terms of my own writing; I wanted to explore Allison’s technique. To do so, I asked myself how does Allison use concrete details to convey setting and atmosphere—and, simultaneously, to characterize the narrator?
Allison begins chapter two with this: “Greenville, South Carolina, in 1955 was the most beautiful place in the world. Black walnut trees… where their knotty roots rose up out of the ground like elbows and knees of dirty children suntanned dark and covered in scars (17). This line accomplishes two things. It gives the reader a visual landscape to place its characters in, but it also tells us something about the narrator, Bone. It tells us that she is used to seeing kids dirty from hours playing outside, tanned by the sun and scarred and “beat up” by playing rough and probably without supervision. These kinds of children, in 1955, were often the children of working mothers (i.e. lower social economic status). But this line is also delivered without an undercurrent of judgment; therefore we can assume that it is a natural sight to Bone and probably her own circumstance. We learn all of this from just two sentences.
In chapter six, Allison dedicates several pages to the apartment of her Aunt Alma and her children. Below their apartment lived another family with several children, but as Allison remarks “I had never seen colored people up close, and I was curious about these. They did look scared (84). Bone’s interest in this family and their “outsider” status mimics the way in which she believes others feel about her and her own “white trash” family. And the description of the dry and splintered wood of the staircase and the hot dirt of the yard again speaks to the poverty of the area. Interesting in this case, you have a “colored family” of the 1950’s and a “white trash” family, living in the same location under the same conditions, yet it is alluded that they both believed themselves to simultaneously be outsiders to the world, yet better than their close living counterparts.
There are many examples of Allison’s technique throughout the novel. What I learned form reading the book and searching for these specific examples is that setting, to work well, must be a combination of environment and character. How a character or narrator describes the surroundings is an integral part of how the reader will view the character. In this case, Bone’s stark descriptions lend both to the creation of a bleak atmosphere and to the dark outlook Bone has for her own circumstances in life. In a novel about such heavy themes (sexual abuse, poverty, betrayal, etc) Allison’s plainspoken and unsentimental descriptions of setting characterize both the world that Bone lives in and Bone herself.