Mothers, Tell Your Daughters

by Bonnie Jo Campbell

(Norton, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

A Michigan native, Bonnie Jo Campbell earned a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1984, an MA in mathematics in 1995 and an MFA in creative writing in 1998 from Western Michigan University. She has traveled with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and has organized adventure bicycle tours in Eastern Europe and Russia. And she has written well-regarded books, including Once Upon a River, Q Road, Women and Other Animals  and American Salvage, a story collection that was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. She has contributed to many literary journals and her short story, “The Smallest Man in the World, won a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Kalamazoo and teaches at Pacific University.

What is this book about?

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters continues her sharp and sympathetic chronicling of the lives of rural American women whose working-class lives are difficult, to say the least. Tough and rough, but vulnerable to the brutal men in their lives and tangled in complicated mother-daughter relationships, the women she portrays here include a new bride who believes her dead ex-boyfriend has returned – but as a mongrel dog, an abused woman who gets revenge on her dying husband, a gang-rape victim, a woman whose smother-love drives away those she most wants to hold close, a woman dying of cancer who reflects on her life and others who are bloodied but not completely bowed.

Why you’ll like it:

Campbell’s stories are strong and disturbing stuff, but leavened with her quirky humor, which makes them all the more powerful. Her deep grasp of the dark side of rural life enables her to make her flawed characters feel very real and very much worth meeting on the page. For those who may wonder why some poor and disadvantaged people behave in self-destructive ways, here are stories full of insight that will engender empathy and understanding.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “Campbell’s stories are populated mainly by country dwellers, farmers and blue-collar workers who live in semi-isolation near Kalamazoo, Mich., Campbell’s hometown. They coexist with animals as much as with other human beings, and like animals, they are adaptive and resilient. Campbell, who grew up on a farm, paints them with unpitying fascination…All of the protagonists of these stories are women, and Campbell would have us remember that with respect to relations between the sexes, brutality and violence are part of our animal legacy. Some of the freshest stories are ones in which she pursues this insight while allowing her absurdist humor free rein…Like the women in her stories, Campbell’s prose can be watchful and viscerally alive. It’s no accident that injuries and hospitals figure repeatedly here. She wants to drill down beneath the flesh, to hidden depths of feeling and being, to reservoirs of strength and power that these women hardly know are there.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “After 2011’s novel Once upon a River, National Book Award–finalist Campbell returns to the realm of food stamps, liquored nights, and deadbeat men in an aptly titled short story collection populated by beleaguered mothers and their tetchy, trouble-courting offspring. In “To You, as a Woman,” a gang-rape victim and single mother laments her later irresponsible choices and contemplates the fate of her two young children while waiting for STD lab results. The paranoid maternal figure in “Tell Yourself” drives away her new beau after wrongfully accusing him of showing an interest in her teenage daughter. In “My Dog Roscoe,” a hormonal and pregnant new bride imagines her dead ex-fiancé inhabiting the soul of a stray dog in need of adoption. The title story unfolds as a sprint-down-memory-lane rant from a hospice-bound, cancer-ridden woman to her daughter. “Forgive me, even if I can’t say I’m sorry,” she says—an apology uttered in one way or another by many of the mothers in this collection. Campbell has made a career chronicling the triumphs and hardships of the perpetually marginalized, with an acute talent for airing the dirty laundry of tough-as-nails, ill-treated women. And though this new batch traverses similar territory instead of, perhaps, something new, most of the stories succeed so thoroughly that it’s hard not to think: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

A starred review from Library Journal says: “Strong writing holds the readers’ attention in Campbell’s collection of dark, offbeat stories. In the title piece, the narrator, who has survived much sorrow through toughness, tells her life story from a hospice bed. Her dying wish is for her kin to make her funeral a real bash. In “My Dog Roscoe,” a woman suspects that a stray dog rescued by her husband is a reincarnation of her sexy former boyfriend, Oscar. . . . In “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” 47-year-old Jill is pregnant with her fifth child, her mother has cancer, her youngest daughter is also pregnant, and her marriage is on the rocks. She compares herself to a queen bee past her prime who can no longer cling to life. Throughout, mothers and daughters struggle with bad luck, bad choices, and bad men; there’s always an imbalance of power in their relationships, never in their favor. . . . Campbell tells bittersweet stories of unbearable heartache, sadness, and sometimes love.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Campbell’s latest: a powerful but uneven collection focused on the experiences of working-class Michigan women. She covered much the same ground in American Salvage. . .  but still has plenty of fresh insights, as evidenced in the collection’s three standout entries. The title story is a searing first-person monologue by a woman dying of lung cancer, talking back in her head to the reproachful, college-educated daughter who blames her for sharing her life with a parade of violent men who brutalized her children as well. . . . “A Multitude of Sins,” by contrast, is the scary but gratifying account of an abused wife who finally gets her own back with the mortally ill husband who can no longer hurt her. The most nuanced and complex tale gently profiles Sherry, who has spent years trying to create “Somewhere Warm” for her family, a refuge totally different from “the bitter place where Sherry grew up, where people humiliated one another, where the power of love did not hold sway.” Instead, her smothering embraces drive away her husband, her lover, and her angry teenage daughter, though a tender ending offers tentative hope. Campbell’s protagonists are tough but heartbreakingly vulnerable; an appalling number have been molested as children or raped as adults, and they rarely seek justice since nothing in their experiences suggests it’s attainable for them. The very modesty of their dreams . . . indicts the society from which they expect so little. A fine showcase for this talented writer’s ability to mingle penetrating character studies with quietly scathing depictions of hard-pressed lives.”

When is it available?

Tell your daughters and everyone else that this book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


Comments are closed.