I just finished Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. This is Campbell’s fourth book and each, whether in novel or short story form, brings us into terrain most never see and fewer want to navigate. All of these stories have appeared elsewhere, from Southern Review to Kenyon Review on Line, all fine literary places that are read by fairly small audiences (of which I am not a regular member), so it is good to see her stories get wider circulation in a book collection. Not that she’s not well established and increasingly well known, but collections make it easier for a wider range of readers to gain access to her fine work.
Campbell’s stories are a fine reminder of the erroneous tendency of some readers to confuse autobiography and fiction (or to extrapolate one from another). The author in this instance is a smiling, happy, empathetic, helpful, funny human being, and though some of her characters share some or all of these traits, they are clearly not anything like the real human who imagined them into life. The difference between the public figure and her characters must hit some folks like running their Volvo into a big tree.
The characters here are nothing like those from Disney or Sitcom TV. These are real folks in what at first blush may seem unreal situations, but they are actually all very real and very messy, a fine definition of life itself. Herein we meet masochists and sadists (some part-time, some who alternate roles), stoics, and impulsives — trying to do what they see as right, or best (the two aren’t synonymous), often failing, and lamenting such failures and their inability to understand, or “do right.”
I once read a comment from the late Nelson Algren that came to mind as I was reading Campbell’s stories. He was referring to Richard Wright’s work (Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, Black Boy, etc). Algren told an interviewer, “Dick Wright was the only one in the thirties, who wrote anything not just from the bottom of American society, but a bottom where a tremendous number of people lived inarticulately and had known Wright and had seen that he made these multitudes articulate to himself.”
Campbell is on similar ground, but the whole notion of articulateness gave me pause. In our time this word carries a number of potential meanings, including: parts connected by joints; distinct syllables and words that have meaning as human speech; the ability to speak; expressing oneself easily and clearly; and, well formulated, clearly presented.
In Elizabethan times, the times of Shakespeare, four hundred years ago, the word meant something else and (having been camped for the better part of a year in the WS world) I quickly saw the distinction and difference. Back then the word meant, “negotiating, making deals, coming to terms.”
Seems to me that the characters created by Campbell are a blend of these meanings, but mostly they seem to be in the Elizabethan mode, trying their best to find ways to deal with the realities life has dealt them. The folks in these 17 stories are anything but inarticulate, in the sense of being unable to communicate. Hell, these folks flood each other with words, but their language, syntax, vocabulary, metaphors, and descriptions are far from the well-mown path of college prep students. Whatever these women lack in formal education and paper baubles, they possess immense measures of street smarts, intuition, and introspection.
Being human, they all seem doomed, as are we all. Humans are born with a death writ in hand and only the date and cause missing. This is a shadow that hangs over every life and is felt keenly in this body of work.
I remember from another life a survey of “corporate culture” in which a respondent wrote, “This is a place where you can drown, but you can’t swim.” This remark hung in my mind the whole time I was reading this collection. Campbell’s characters may be on the verge of drowning, or not, but they do not give up. They endure everything from poor choices to rape and dog-paddle in all manners guild, self-blame, and self-recrimination.
In a war in another life, during POW training, I watched educated, smart, physical fit young men after only a few days of stress, lie down on the ground in the fetal position and literally give up. There was even a name for it, “Giveupitis.” Campbell’s characters may flirt with this, but never succumb.
I should add this is not a world where men earn many (any?) merit badges or kudos. Campbell’s characters inhabit what a world of women — at varying socioeconomic levels, but a set of conditions rarely spoken of, much less acknowledged. There may be a tendency to think hillbilly when one first reads of these people, but little of this is rural and so, if anything, they are suburbillies, all of them tiptoeing and stumbling along the ragged, jagged edges or reality.
There’s no point to talking about a book without a straight forward recommendation, so here it is: Buy this book. And, please do not borrow it from a friend or loan your copy to another person, because these behaviors do not helping authors. If you want more from Campbell, and I suspect you will, buy the book and tell your pals to do the same.
Be forewarned: This is not a happy-face read, but it is an amazing look into a fine array of characters, ranging from a circus candy-hawker called Buckeye, to a phlebotomist.
Fiction writers must become other people in order to tell stories and good writing should help us to empathize and make us think. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, does both.