Why We Chose It: “Good Bones,” by Helen White

“Good Bones” is a story of a hard and unstable family situation, and even more so, how the poisons of a toxic parental relationship can seep into the child. In the story, Maria inherits her late father’s house, a house that has been within her family for several generations which “seemed in danger of collapsing.” As she is fixing up her new home, she is reminded of the rocky relationship she had with her father in her adolescence. Within this story, Helen White incorporates themes of family and failure through characterization of not only Maria, but the father and the house itself. 

White’s ability to build characters in such a short time period is exceptional. Her characters are more than what they seem, Maria being a prime example. From the start it is made clear that Maria hated her father’s house, when he was alive and even after he died. As the story continues, we find out that her father was an aggressive man: “She could hear her father in the dining room, muttering to himself over a manuscript until he broke and tore up the pages, scattering them across the floor. She heard him get up and slam the front door as he left.” Being in the house where she was hurt not only opens her wounds, but brings out the worst in her. Maria says it best, “no one … could anger you like a parent, especially when you saw so much of them in who you were becoming.” In flashbacks we are inserted into memories of what kind of home life she dealt with, one that was damaging and affected her greatly. 

The house itself is described in such a way that it is almost personified. It holds the very essence of her father’s unstable moods and harsh way of parenting. Her father and their house were connected in such a way that “The mood of the entire house rested on whether her father could string words together to his satisfaction.” When she messed up his papers, he shattered a porcelain rabbit, and even beyond what he did, she was instilled with dread and fear as if he was God. The house is described very similar to her father whose very touch “had felt the same as a dried-out stalk on her skin: rough and full of surprising, sharp edges.” Through the solid descriptions, dialogue and imagery, readers are able to gaze through the eyes of someone who has bruises from her past that run deep and shape her into someone she wishes she wasn’t. 

It’s almost like her cursed fate, because as much as she wanted to stay away, as much as she hated the way she was treated, Maria returns to the house. She feeds into the never-ending cycle of reverting back to what she dreads because “Eventually, like her father had, they [the men who owned the house before them] all returned to the house and withered into it like a cocoon, the mildewy smell of the wallpaper rubbing off on their hands until it was part of their skin.” She left with the emotional damage of the house, and readers can see how she as a person is parallel with her father when she admits she lost her job because she broke her computer out of anger. When she broke it, “She had hated herself in that moment, staring down at the shattered computer screen, not only because this action cost her her job, but because she had already forgotten doing it. She had always told her father that not remembering was a terrible excuse.” This is where readers know it’s too late for her, and that she has already succumbed to the toxic behavior that she had once been forced to experience.

Often, the main characters of the story are ones we are encouraged to side with and see the good in. Helen White creates a unique and enticing story where all we can do is have sympathy for someone who is too far gone in her own rage-induced behavior. Maria expresses her disdain with her father, yet she becomes the very person he is—angry, easily frustrated, and tortured. This piece expresses that rough childhoods run deep, but it is our obligation to grow from it, or we are doomed. The saddest part is that now she is an adult and truly only has herself, and she may not be capable of change unless she truly breaks from her father’s ways and the generational curse that is the house.

Amaya Baylock, contributing editor in art and fiction

Read this story in Issue 5 of Levitate Magazine, available on our website on May 25! And join us for our launch reading on YouTube at 7 pm Central on May 25.

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