Bonnie Jo Campbell is a master of rural America’s postindustrial landscape. Her territory is one of polluted rivers and parking lots, methamphetamine and dead tractors, unwanted babies and rotting teeth, and violence so regular its victims and perpetrators alike seem to view it as part of the natural order. In “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,’’ her sixth book and third story collection, Campbell trains her unsparing eye on women and girls whose lives are marked by rape, molestation, and physical abuse — or, somewhat less viciously, by teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, and philandering men.
In the title story, a dying woman tries to explain why she allowed one of her boyfriends to molest her daughter as a girl. In another, the mother of a teenage daughter is so crippled by her experiences with men that she can’t trust even the good one who loves her. A third mother is willing to have sex with a man in exchange for the painkillers she’s addicted to, but not with his three friends, who proceed to gang rape her.
Predatory men abound. Yet Campbell’s women are teeming with their own desires for sex, and candy, and intoxication, and sometimes even connection. This is what lifts Campbell’s work beyond complaint or manifesto: Her suggestion that all of us — or perhaps none of us — are responsible for our failures to treat each other and ourselves humanely. “I don’t know how anyone can stop a girl from drinking so much she doesn’t know what she’s doing,” laments one narrator who is realizing that her brother watched multiple men have sex with her while she was drunk beyond consciousness. “All the precautions in the world might not be enough for a girl who loves fun.”
If reason is to be conquered in these stories — and it always is — Campbell’s view seems to be that instinct, as opposed to love, most often does the conquering. One character’s lust is another’s fantasy of “a comfortable, well-lit place nobody can take away from us” (the echo of Hemingway thrills for its incongruity here), but no matter her story, each woman and girl is wrestling with her own animal self.
Campbell plied this tension with great precision and subtlety in her last novel, “Once Upon a River,’’ which follows the scrappy, sharp-shooting, teenage Margo Crane up and down her beloved Michigan river. And in the strongest moments in “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,’’ Campbell strays even more deeply into her characters’ experiences at the edges of civilization. In “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” a middle-age, accidentally pregnant mother of an also-pregnant daughter returns obsessively, sometimes battily, to biology metaphors. Take this tragicomic specimen: “Pity the slug with no house on her back, no camping trailer in which to hide — she is all sex and no safety.” A scientist who hasn’t managed to finish her doctorate (unlike the man who was her professor before he became her cheating husband), she goes on: “And the semi-slug as well, whose ancestors were snails but whose shell has shrunk over the generations until she sports nothing more substantial than a jaunty calcified cap. Neither slug nor semi-slug has any protection against another slug following her glistening trail.”
Sometimes, Campbell’s metaphors grow heavy-handed — in the same story, for instance, our narrator, contemplating an abortion, tells a hen whose eggs have gone cold and will not hatch, “You had it easy, though. You just had to get up and walk away.” In other stories, Campbell takes her characters so far in their defiance or ignorance of societal expectations that she risks turning them into caricatures. The old woman in the title story, for example, in the midst of defending the men who abused her children, protests, “And for crying out loud, nobody told your little brothers to chew the old paint off the windowsills.”
It can be difficult to tell whether Campbell is asking us to shake our heads at the world or at her characters. But a certain amount of discomfort may be part of Campbell’s project. The abuse of women here can feel unrelenting, for instance, but then again, isn’t it? Likewise, the sheer number of stories — 16 — may be too many, the collective threatening to subsume a smaller coterie of exquisite individuals. But perhaps that is fitting too. For shine each story does, just like two laughing showgirls who, Campbell writes, “[w]ithout wigs and makeup, dressed in their jogging shorts and tanks . . . seemed like carefree teenage boys.”
MOTHERS, TELL YOUR DAUGHTERS
By Bonnie Jo Campbell. Norton,
272 pp., $25.95