The rites-of-male-passage novel is common, indeed a cliche', in American fiction; the rites-of-female-passage, by contrast, is almost nonexistent. Why this should be so is a mystery, but there you have it: From Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield and beyond, we have scads of novels about the growing pains of boys and the tremblings of their adolescence; but the girls have scarcely been heard from.
So for that reason if no other the novels of Sylvia Wilkinson, of which "Bone of My Bones" is the fifth, are especially welcome. Presumably motivated by a strong autobiographical impulse, she has focused over and again on girls growing into young womanhood in her native North Carolina. Clearly she is also motivated by a strong feminist impulse, but unlike many of the female novelists who live in the large cities she is not given to dogma; her stories simply focus on what it is like to be a girl, one of intelligence and ambition.
The girl in "Bone of My Bones" is Ella Ruth Higgins, the place is the North Carolina hamlet of Summit and, as the novel opens, the time is 1950, "the year I will be 10 years old." By the end Ella Ruth is 18 and has weathered a troubled adolescence that includes her rape by several boys with whom she has grown up and the death of her mother. It is also an adolescence in which she discovers the rewards of putting onto paper the workings of her lively imagination; Ella Ruth is a writer in the making.
Against, it should be added, most considerable odds. Rural North Carolina in the 1950s could be a place of narrow, cramped attitudes, impoverished living conditions and bleak prospects. Summit is a characteristic community of the period, with the requisite gossipy old women and randy boys and ne'er-do-wells of one kind and another, all of whom may seem stereotypes but who are, in point of fact, entirely true to life.
For Ella Ruth, this constricting environment is made all the more so by the atmosphere at home. Her father, a painter and handyman, is a drunk, a racist and a bully: "I knew that a fine figure of a man was what my daddy wasn't. He was like a joke, only you had to be careful when you laughed at him." She is devoted to her mother, but despairs over her appearance and health:
"I never knew Mama pretty. Her chin had enough white bristles to be on an old man. Her features were lost in too much flesh, her nose much too tiny for her face. Her plucked brows were loose hairs, grown together across her forehead. I tried to imagine which hairs I would leave if I pulled them out to have a new moon left over each eye. Only her eyeballs, clear blue and round as marbles, had kept their shape. I never knew Mama thin, either. Big as a barrel, Daddy called her."
Yet it is her mother who gives direction to Ella Ruth's life, both wittingly and unwittingly. As to the latter, her mother's country ignorance is a model that Ella Ruth is determined not to emulate, and ditto for her obesity: "How could she have let it happen? I was never going to get fat if I had to starve myself the rest of my life. But she also gives Ella Ruth love, kindness and respect -- and, in the last days of her life, she gives her a piece of hard-earned advice. She tells her to flee: "Out of our house. Heaven. Married. Anywhere away from that man I married . . . Don't get to thinking you've got your fair share of life yet. I'll miss you terrible, but an old woman's got no right to keep her child."
Yet after her mother's death Ella Ruth does not follow that counsel. Instead, moved by the ties of blood, she stays with her father, whose failing physical condition makes him increasingly dependent on her. She takes a job at the local hospital, draws a regular paycheck, and eventually reaches a clear understanding of her heritage:
"My daddy isn't as bad as I made him out to be. He has never stolen my money or tried to even. All he asks for is enough to go to the tavern or to buy a pint when he feels like staying home. I've thought about it a lot and he's the only right father for me to have. If I'd had all those clothes with my name tags in them, I would never have known about feed-sack dresses or had a fat mama who made me a wardrobe fit for a princess when my teacher said I had to dress like a lady."
Her heritage may be meager, but it is her own; and in it is the raw material for the stories that she is moved to tell. At the end she is a tough, resourceful, determined young woman, not interested in marriage and ready to make a go of it on her own.
It's a modest and appealing story, told with obvious feeling. But "Bone of My Bones" has serious weaknesses. Narrative line is virtually nonexistent; the rape, supposedly a pivotal event, is described in a surprisingly perfunctory way and Ella Ruth's response to it is barely credible; the samples of Ella Ruth's own writing are unlikely to persuade many readers that she has a future as a writer.
Because Sylvia Wilkinson is herself an uncommonly talented writer, and because she knows her territory so well, her work always commands a serious and respectful hearing. But "Bone of My Bones" suggests that she has by now explored the rites-of-passage novel for all it is worth and then some; it is time for her to be done with childish things.