The River of Names is taken from Dorothy Ellison’s collection of short stories in Trash, which was published in 1988. This served as the basis for The Bastard from Carolina, a later novel by Allison. In her flamboyant writings, Allison refers to her own abusive childhood in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1950s: the stigma of getting bigger, embarrassment and pride she felt for her family, and her connection with her stepfather who abused her.
In this narrative, Allison explores her life as a way to come to terms with her past and pay homage to the attempt to turn her experience as a working-class lesbian addicted to violence, language, and optimism into contemporary literature. Her emotionally charged narrative is ultimately about survival.
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Nothing surpasses most of the criticisms levied against the poor’s habits by those who are well housed, well-warmed, and well-fed. – Herman Melville. In today’s environment, individuals want to identify what they don’t understand. They perceive white trash to be people who live in poverty and come from the south. Of course, their own socio-economic background has an impact on this viewpoint.
Allison’s debut novel, The Tree of Life and Other Stories (2015), offers a unique perspective on the backwoods lifestyle. She does not romanticize their lives; rather, she challenges conventional perceptions of southern rural life while also avoiding exploitation. A narrator who is nameless tells the story, which depicts Allison’s childhood in this sort of family and follows all common perceptions: missing teeth, shredded overalls, and filth. This poverty is dismissed without hesitation.
Dorothy Allison’s narrator, like her words, is not simple. This narrator tells Dorothy Allison’s story with unblinking honesty about a world where pain and love come together. It was something to do while you waited. We had what we needed and didn’t have what we needed for the nerve of it, the rage, the desire. But eventually, we were all caught. Then it became: When are you going to understand?
Allison based her characters on her own dysfunctional southern family. Through her own tenacious striving for survival and by writing as a means of retaliation, she was able to escape the same fate that had befallen countless generations of this family. By telling the story as fiction, she is able to get away from being overly sentimental while still having a clear view of the characters’ purity. Her characters are not one-dimensional because of this autobiographical pretense, which provides some of the images in the book shocking.
Her choice of the book title is another negative image. The River of Names informs the reader that there are more family members’ names than he or she can recall. She then compares the family to tadpoles, adding that no one would be concerned if one were missing from time to time. The narrator attempts to enumerate each lost person’s manner of death throughout this section.
One did this, one did that, and so on. The list goes on and on. This does not cover any of the individual events that follow. People in these stories do get names; the reader is overwhelmed by a plethora of different names and terrible calamities that are more horrible than the previous tale. There are truths and deaths in every sentence, as well as plenty of accidents, sickness, and sadness; nevertheless, there is life in it.
Another explanation for her survival provided by Allison is that she is a lesbian. She also uses her homosexuality in her narrative, as she is a lesbian. The narrator has a girlfriend named Jessie, who she deeply loves. Her connection with Jesse serves as a contrast to some of the terrible things that are recounted. Jessie is seen as having an idyllic childhood, being innocent and the narrator clinging to it for optimism. This is demonstrated through the frequent use of hands to symbolize healing and bonding between these two women.
With her smooth-talking, that no one ever slapped my chin, and I loved that chin, but when Jessie spoke, my hands shook. Her hands were once again described in detail as lying beneath Jesse’s chin as she was asleep. The narrator clings to the innocence of her soft-chinned youth. Jesse s hands are said to be grasping the narrator’s hipbones as she tells him she loves him. After a traumatic recollection in the preceding passage, the narrator became calmer.
The two arms are brought back for a final time at the end, when they nearly come together, unifying the two bodies into one. In her reaction to Jesse’s remarks and inquiries, the narrator employs detachment as a means of survival.
How wonderful to have such a large family?
I cannot say a word
How many of you were there?
I do not answer
She tells Jesse rather than spoiling her ideas. The narrator has all these terrible ideas and recollections when Jesse speaks of children, yet she says nothing, even though she understands it is condemning them. She also lies about insignificant things like how her grandmother smells, claiming to have the scent of lavender when really a snuff and sweat aroma was present. All this time was spent protecting Allison’s innocence.
Allison s survival in this narrative is a testament to the damaging power of abuse, and it’s an example of the wide-ranging consequences that abuse can have on a person. Is it possible for such emotionally and sexually charged material to be treated as a memoir? Her lack of flowery language helps her distance herself from the horrible events she recounts. She employs the narrator to tell her tale, but never really details the narrator’s emotions while the torture is happening.
We were raped almost constantly, my cousins and I. It was a joke in our family. It wasn’t amusing for me at home with my stepfather, not for Billie in the attic with her uncle, not for Lucille in the woods with another cousin, Danny while traveling with four men, or Pammie who produced the press.
The reader only encounters feelings of terror and fear when Allison eliminates the narrator from her past and reintroduces him to Jesse’s safety in the present. By employing a succession of flashbacks, Allison provides a sense of intermittent comfort. After each horrible tale of abuse, incest, and murder is shared, the reader is returned to Jesse for a moment of consolation and ease. In each one of these terrible stories, the protagonist seems to accept this violence as unavoidable and inevitable.
We rose cautiously, blushing. We both knew. They will murder you if you fight back. You may collaborate with the lie to survive occasionally, but true survival is to refuse to collaborate anymore. Allison’s style of writing is a method of self-exploration for her. She truly felt that her stepfather had the right to beat her because he thought she was worthless. The sexual abuse was the least damaging element in her experience, according to an interview with Carolyn Megan published in The Kenyon Review. The most devastating was his repeated comments that she was contemptible in his eyes.
It was beaten into her until she started to believe it, and it was the most severe damage. Ellison does not dismiss the ghastly acts, but he omits many of the graphic details that some writers include in domestic violence pornography. There is no description of genitals or the actual act of intercourse, only a child’s perspective as she suffers excruciating agony. It is the lack of superfluous information that emphasizes attention on surviving and their consequences rather than on poor decisions in her narrative.
Allison’s writing is characterized by a strong and sometimes painful interest in life. It’s simple and understated, which aids its credibility. Every review I’ve seen has highlighted Allison’s truthfulness and that’s unusual. She uses distance and displacement to communicate these truths in such a way that they become real for her. Her words scar the mind while also purifying and scarring it at the same time, leaving the reader with an experience of reality after reading it through.
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