Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, Bonnie Jo Campbell, W.W.Norton & Company, 2015, 272pp
I think books and their authors come to you when you need them most, when you are ready for them, like messengers from whatever gods there might be. Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the complacency-shattering, soul-shaking Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, is like Iris; divine messenger with the winged staff and pitcher full of the River Styx, elixir to put to sleep those who do not tell their truths; goddess too of rainbows; and also, she after whom the eye’s iris — that part which determines how much light is allowed in and the color of the eye — is named; and, finally, in this my tortured simile (or metaphor, or analogy, or allegory — it wouldn’t matter to Ms. Campbell’s characters and it doesn’t really matter to me) that Iris from whom the word iridescence was made.
Yes, Ms. Campbell’s writing is iridescent. What starts as one thing, a thing you think you know, changes as the story grows, as details accumulate in the most seemingly casual way — just like they do in life — and suddenly, a shift in light or shadow and what seemed ineluctably one thing becomes another; layer after layer of color and luminosity manage to illuminate the landscape of the heart in ways that often eviscerate but which are never false.
Ms. Campbell’s people lead hard lives and she writes their stories with a ferocious honesty and savage truthfulness. But brutal reality is their medium, the milieu in which they have always dwelt, and if that agar in the boundaried petri dishes of their lives grows bacteria and mold, they make the most of the rot with which they are left, and sometimes that most equals nothing more than survival. They live, love, laugh, leave, leverage, and lose — goddess, how they lose — within the pitiless confines of hardscrabble America.
These stories have a ferocity, a creeping horror of exhausted sorrow, and yet, still, somehow, convey hope. Here where I live, Maryland, in a once rural enclave now verging on urbanity, there is still a population of these people of reduced circumstance, limited exposure to the world and opportunity, constrained by chance, luck of the draw, roll of the fuzzy dice. I too have suffered under the slaps and slams and slanders of tattooed men whose pickup trucks mean more to them than any human being ever will, and I have met the women, befriended and best-friended these women who can’t be bothered about changing the world because the world has kept them too busy clawing out of the ditches of minimum wage and inequality and class-warfare in an effort to feed and care for the children those temporarily irresistible, rednecked aphrodisiacal hexologists in their monster pickup trucks with their inked-on-totems that finally mean — almost always — “I’m a loser” — have left behind.
I have of late been whining to myself, full of self-pity, mourning my station in life, my lack of prosperity, the times my hand was not held, how disposable I have been to family, friends, lovers, and how little I mean to my own personal parade of late of losers and liars and down-low sneaks and snakes with whom I don’t trade real names, and hardest truth of all, what it means that I spend so much energy on men to whom I mean so little. And if I allow myself to mean so little to them, well, what must that say about how little I mean to myself. I’ve been disgusted with the way I’ve mooned, moaned, and lamented over wasted men with prominent Adam’s apples as does Susanna O’Leary in The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree, the final story in this collection and the single one with what might be a happy ending. Might be. Or it might just be that the story stops at the point in Susanna’s life before the new man who’s already made promises he probably can’t keep goes sour and foul and full-on fool.
I can’t name a favorite of these stories, each one is brilliant in its own way. There’s Playhouse, where Janie is both literally and figuratively screwed by her brother and his friends, coming to slow realization that she is in pain. And The Greatest Show on Earth, 1982: What There Was and Daughters of the Animal Kingdom, in both of which a woman must decide what to do about an unplanned, not terribly welcomed pregnancy; I would make every anti-abortion politician read and study these. In fact, I would make every politician period read these stories because they are truthful about the kind of lives led by a huge swath of people in this country, a world in which trading sex for what you need from the 7-11 is not so far out a solution and sometimes the only option.
Yes, Ms. Campbell sheds light, tells truths, and writes with a voice authentic and funny and full of ache and anger and rather urgent messages from the goddesses, messages we all are better off for having heard. I know I am, like I said, books come when you need them most, and as hard as I think my life has been, this, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, reminded me that Effie, we all got pain.
Thank you, Bonnie Jo Campbell for this beautiful book.