The new collection is more far-ranging and experimental. It feels breezier. But there’s no shortage of grit. It opens with a five-paragraph bit of flash fiction, “Sleepover” (one of four brisk pieces) and comes in a variety of first-person and second-person voices in addition to the more traditional narratives. As the title of this collection might suggest, this one is a bit more feminine-focused than American Salvage (with its great title and great scruffy-Gothic cover). The only reason I don’t like the title or this cover is that I’m worried some “dudes” won’t dive in. (If you listen to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s talk at The Tattered Cover last November, captured on Authors on Tour, you’ll know what I mean about her message to dudes.)
Dude readers, you’re making a a big mistake if you don’t pick this up. Here’s one reason—Campbell’s tremendous empathy. Here’s another—her ability to see and listen. She told The Millions that she’s “just looking around at the world, seeing where the interesting problems lie.” But don’t let the “just” fool you; Campbell works hard–and makes the reading easy.
American Salvage was masculine, Mothers is feminine but Campbell’s eye is still “looking around the world” for the overlooked, the under-reported. These are lives on the edge with interesting or challenging choices ahead. Religion weaves its way in and out of these stories. So does personal health, medical care and poverty. “Now” is what matters; most of Campbell’s characters don’t have a reason to plan or dream; neither option is really on the table.
Campbell’s deals in specificity. The circus worker Buckeye from “The Greatest Show on Earth, 1982: What There Was” and Marika the phlebotomist from “Blood Work, 1999” don’t share much in common except the two could get together and talk about pushy men (Red in Buckeye’s case).
And Sherry from “Somewhere Warm” and Mrs. Betcher from “A Multitude of Sins” could share some thoughts on religion and forgiveness (and they’d might disagree) but I wonder in short story collections about whether sometimes we look too hard for threads and themes rather than letting the stories stand alone. Isn’t that the point?
Yes, farms. Yes, rural. Yes, animals. Yes, farm animals. Yes, lots of Michigan (and Arizona …and Romania). Number of rich cats here? None. Campbell’s characters live in a land of struggle, of scraping by. Like, you know, most people. Campbell’s females grapple with oppression. Few are in charge, at least on paper.
Campbell has a terrific eye and a fantastic ear for dialogue. She also knows a good plot surprise (say, the fireworks ending of “Blood Work, 1999”) and she knows that when to ease up on the bleak factor and leave you with a ray of sunshine, “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree.”
These are powerful stories. Did I love them all? No. Did I respect them all? Big time. By the way, I highly recommend listening to the audio version by Christina Delaine; her variety of voices and delivery is stellar. (I only wish the producers had left a bigger gap between the stories; a few transitions were jolting.)
After you’re done with Delaine’s take, read the actual book and listen to your own voice. Then check out that Authors on Tour podcast. The presentation includes the ever-upbeat Campbell reading a few of these, including the compelling title story. Mothers, tell your daughters to read these stories. And, yeah, dudes too.
Previously reviewed: American Salvage