Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (October 2015), Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new collection of short stories, her third, is anything but a page-turner. Readers who gobbled her 2012 novel, Once Upon a River, should, when opening Mothers, be warned to adjust their expectations. For that novel’s main character, the orphaned sharp shooter Margo Crane, 16, kept readers in her grip from the moment she, after a sexual misadventure with an uncle, and the murder of her father, flees her home place in a canoe with a stolen rifle.
The varied and marvelous stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters are a different breed of narrative. They ask for, no, demand, slow contemplative reading and rereading, and they reward this effort with their wisdom, wit and grace; the abiding wonders of their language as it pirouettes from the profane to the lyrical in a sentence or a paragraph. For example, Buckeye, who sells cotton candy, in “The Greatest Show On Earth, 1982: What There Was,” feels more than she can think, “her hip in short shorts touching his hip, her body filled with desire, filled with more than desire, her body and heart and mind all full up with Mike from loving him on his bunk last night, ready to love him again despite the heat, despite Red showing up” (48).
Campbell made her reputation as a writer of ‘rural noir’ with her first novel, Q Road, and her acclaimed second story collection American Salvage. By no means does she abandon the hard-working, lovelorn women that are her forte, or the troubled men who insist upon residing on the edges of their lives, but Mothers, Tell Your Daughters also stakes out new territory in such stories as “My Dog Roscoe,” “Natural Disasters,” “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” and “The Fruit of the Paw Paw Tree,” with their smart, well-educated sassy women, their narrative loops and switchbacks – you can’t ever tell exactly where they’re going or how they’ll get there. Like the best stories of Alice Munro, these leave in the mind’s eye fascinating contrails that demand a second or third look – with a deeper understanding gleaned each time.
Mothers also offers fresh perspectives on familiar Campbellian characters. Sherry, the lonely put-upon mother in “Somewhere Warm,” at last achieves serenity when she realizes, “love was not something you created for the reward of it. Loving was as natural for a good person as shining was for the sun, and the sun shone whether the plants appreciated it or not. Some people could return your love, and others could only absorb it, the way a black hole took in all the light and gave nothing back, but that didn’t diminish the shining” (172).
The title story, sixth of the 16, serves as the fulcrum around which the other stories spin. Simple in conception, brilliant in execution, “Mother, Tell Your Daughters,” offers the bittersweet wisdom of a mother in hospice, one silenced by a stroke, longing to tell her more sophisticated and better-educated daughter everything she’s never told her before, spilling out for the reader a profound, life-shaping mother/daughter bond that was never soft or easy. “…Pretty soon,” she thinks, “I’ll be dead and you’ll wake up and realize you’ve got your fist clenched around nothing” (90). This mother is a signature Campbell character, a rural woman confined by lack of education and near poverty, but driven by her tremendous energy and competence, and an abiding love hunger. “I never had the luxury of looking back at you—I had to keep my eyes on the horizon to watch out for what was coming next,” she imagines telling Sis. “You complain about the way I raised you children, but I only wanted to survive another day” (90).
Slowly, the story reckons with their multiple mutual betrayals, not one of which, however devastating, begins to fray their bond. At last the mother, considering her daughter’s worldly achievements, thinks, “You should’ve had a daughter of your own. That would’ve been a bone for you to chew on all your life. I guarantee, though, you wouldn’t win any award for raising a daughter” (101).
These stories made me laugh and cry and several of them wrung me out. They offer rare and provocative insights into how some women have to live, and what we, who don’t have to live like that, share with them anyway. Maybe, for Campbell, this is a transitional work, one foot in the past, the other stretching forward. If so, I can’t wait to read what’s coming next.
Reviewed by Julia MacDonnell
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