Just when you thought you'd become inured to tales of domestic abuse, along comes Gal, a gut-wrenching story of a Charleston, S.C., girl growing up in the '60s, who suffered and survived almost unbelievable trauma. Ruthie Bolton (a pseudonym the author uses to protect her family's privacy) was born to a 13-year-old mother and a father she never knew. By the time she reached her midteens, Ruthie had lost her mother (the woman was murdered by a lover who tied her to a bed, doused her with kerosene and set her on fire). She had also witnessed countless beatings, among them her stepgrandfather attacking her grandmother with a garden hose, and she had been severely beaten herself by the same man.
Like a nonfictional, African-American Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison's 1992 best-seller, Gal is an alternately horrifying and uplifting account of survival. Bolton's powerful narrative is simple and unrehearsed. "I don't know who called, but she ended up in the hospital," writes Bolton after a graphic description of her grandmother's final beating. "And...she didn't live long after that. She died."
It is not surprising that such a childhood leads Bolton to a series of petty crimes, violent relationships and unhealthy addictions. What is unusual is Bolton's resilience; how she keeps going after the beatings, after losing custody of her first child, after being abandoned by the women she called sisters.
Readers may be further shocked to learn that Bolton—finally free of her painful beginnings and happily married to a tender, loving man—is the only one in her family to go back and nurse her ailing stepgrandfather until his death, only to be disinherited.
Still, there is nothing in Bolton's tone to suggest that she thinks herself particularly worthy of praise or attention, which may be why she is receiving so much of both. And deservedly so. (Harcourt Brace, $19.95)