River of Names is part of a collection of short stories in the book Trash published in 1988, written by Dorothy Allison. It is the basis for the later novel Bastard out of Carolina. In her powerful writing, Allison draws on her own harrowing childhood in 1950s Greenville, South Carolina: the stigma of growing up a bastard, the shame and pride she felt toward her family, and her association with her stepfather who beat and molested her. In this story, River of Names, Allison writes about her life as a way to come to terms with her past, honoring the attempt to make contemporary literature out of her experience as a working class lesbian addicted to violence, language and hope. Her emotionally intense tale is woven with poverty, incest and abuse is ultimately a tale of survival.
Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.
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In today s society people are eager to categorize what they are unfamiliar with. They perceive people who are poor, and from the south as white trash. Their own socio-economic background of course influences this perception. Allison is from the back woods of South Carolina and presents these people in a way that challenges the expectations of the American public and at the same time does not romanticize their lives. The story is told by a narrator, who is nameless, and her experiences while growing up in this type of family and follows all the stereotypical images that come to mind: broken teeth, torn overalls, and the dirt. She does not gloss over the ugliness of this poverty. Her words are not simple, but hard edged truths. Dorothy Allison speaks through this narrator with unflinching honesty about a world where pain and love intersect.
Stealing was a way to pass the time. Things we needed things we didn t, for the nerve of it, the anger, the need. But sooner or later, we all got caught. Then it was, When are
you going to learn?
Allison s characters are based on her own poor southern family. She managed to escape the fate that destroyed so many generations of this family through her own stubborn determination for survival and by writing as a way to fight back. By writing this story as fictions it provides her the necessary distance to grasp the purity of the characters without being overly sentimental. In that aspect her characters are not one-dimensional and it is because of this autobiographical pretense that some of the images are so horrifying.
One detestable mental picture is given by her choice of title for this story. River of Names is informing the reader there are more names of family members than one can possibly remember. She then continues on to parallel the family to tadpoles and that no one would notice if one were missing from time to time. This concept is further demonstrated by the narrator trying to list the method of death that each lost one went through. One did this, one did that, one fell in the river, one ran away, etc. The list seems almost endless. This does not include any of the individual incidents that are then told. The people in these tales do get names and the reader is swamped with many different names and different tragedies all more horrifying than the previous tale. In every paragraph there are truths and deaths, plenty of accidents, sickness and sorrow and there is life.
Another reason Allison gives for her survival is that she is a lesbian and she incorporates this homosexuality into her story as well. The narrator has a lover, Jessie whom she loves deeply. Her relationship with Jesse seems to be used as a contrast and also as a relief between some of the appalling events that are told. Jessie is portrayed as having a fairy tale adolescence. She is innocent and the narrator clings to that naivet for hope. This is adherence shown with the repeated use of hands as symbols of healing and bonding of these two women.
Jessie said with her smooth mouth, that chin nobody ever slapped, and I loved that chin, but when Jessie spoke then, my hands shook.
Her hands are again mentioned in detail as under Jesse s chin as she was sleeping. The narrator holds on to that soft-chinned innocence. Jesse s hands are spoken of holding onto the narrators hipbones as she professes her love. This leaves the narrator feeling better after a tragic memory in the previous paragraph. Both of the lovers hands are referred to one last time, at the very end almost in a coming together, unifying the two bodies to one.
Detachment is also used as a survival method in the way the narrator responds to Jesse s comments and questions.
How wonderful to have such a large family
I cannot say a word
How many of you were there?
I do not answer
She lies to Jesse rather than spoils her ideas. When Jesse speaks of children the narrator has all these terrible ideas and memories, yet she says nothing, even though she realizes it is condemning them. She also lies about frivolous things, such as how her grandmother smells, telling Jesse she has the fragrance of lavender when it was really a odor of snuff and sweat. All this effort to protect the innocence that the narrator and in turn, Allison clings to.
Surviving the abuse that is told in this story is a feat in itself and in Allison s life serves as an example of the widespread effects that abuse can have on an individual. Could such emotionally and sexually charged material be handled as a memoir? One way Allison says this is possible is through the element of fiction. Her distance as she writes about the horrifying tales is kept through her lack of sentimental words. She uses the narrator to tell her story and never really describes the narrator s feelings while the abuse is going on.
Almost always, we were raped, my cousins and I. That was some kind of joke, too. It wasn t funny for me in my mama s bed with my stepfather, not for my cousin Billie, in the attic with my uncle, not for Lucille in the woods with another cousin, for Danny with four strangers in a parking lot, or for Pammie who made the papers.
The reader only hears about feelings of terror and fear when Allison writes the narrator out of the past and back in the safety of the present with Jesse. By writing this story as a series of flashbacks, Allison provides a sense of intermittent comfort. After each dreadful tale of abuse, incest, and murder is unfolded, the reader is brought back to Jesse for a bit of solace and comfort.
In each of these horrible stories the character takes this abuse as if there is no alternative and that it is their predestination.
Very slowly we stood up, embarrassed, looked at each other. We knew. If you fight back, they kill you.
To survive sometimes you collude with the lie, but real survival is to refuse to collude anymore. Allison s writing is her own means of self-exploration. She actually believed that her stepfather had a right to beat her. In an interview with Carolyn Megan that was published in the Kenyon Review, she describes the sexual abuse as the least destructive part of it. The worst was the repeated words of how contemptible she was in her stepfather s eyes. This was drilled into her until she began to believe it and that was the greatest damage.
Allison does not down play the incestuous acts but does leave out much of the graphic details that some author use to eroticism incest and family violence into a pornography of victimization.. There is no description of genitals, there s no description of the actual act of intercourse except from the perspective of a child who is being hurt terribly. It is the absence of gratuitous detail that turns the focus on the survival and the aftermath and not on the unfortunate acts in her story.
Allison s writing is marked by a pronounced and sometimes painful passion for life. It is simple and never showy which gives it a enhanced credibility. Every review that I have read has discussed the element of truthfulness in Allison s words and that is rare. She writes with distance and displacement to convey these truths in a way that makes it real for her. Her words burn into the mind, cleansing and scarring at the same time, and when it is finished the reader has experienced the truth.
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