Bonnie Jo Campbell: Writing the Other America
On Strong Women and Life on the Margins
The following appears in the current issue of Rain Taxi.
Bonnie Jo Campbell lives on a swamp, amid mosquitoes and spiders. Grackles, goldfinches, hummingbirds, and cardinals flutter outside her screened-in porch, a place she describes as heaven in the summertime. She posts pictures on Facebook of the family of raccoons sprawled outside her screen porch and points out the bump in her dining room floor caused by the roots of a black oak. When she escorts a brown female bat out of her house, she admires its elegance. The natural world perpetually intrudes on her domestic space and she is content with its presence.
I have been staying on the swamp with Bonnie and her husband Chris Magson (“Darling Christopher” as she calls him in her formal correspondences) in a room full of old medical and home repair books, a food dehydrator, several boxes of her award-winning short story collection American Salvage, and bottles of Bonnie’s homemade Elderberry wine. I met Bonnie more than 20 years ago in graduate school. She was in the MFA program at Western Michigan University and I was in the newly created PhD program with a literature emphasis. We took only one course together (a 19th-century American literature class), but I was drawn immediately to Bonnie’s unpretentiousness and her easy humor. Ninety-five percent of my laughter in graduate school was a direct result of something Bonnie said.
When Bonnie’s first collection of short stories, Women and Other Animals, was published in 1999, I humorously suggested that if she kept publishing books, I could become her literary biographer. Sixteen years later, Bonnie is now the author of five books, including her much anticipated new collection of short stories, Mothers Tell Your Daughters. She is a 2011 Guggenheim fellow, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and a Pushcart Prize winner. The time has come to make good on my threat to treat Bonnie (whom I will now reference as Campbell) as a serious literary subject, so I am in Kalamazoo, Michigan—less than a mile from her hometown of Comstock—as part of my sabbatical project to probe Campbell’s world (her writing habits, family relations, and community) and glean as much as I can about her creative process during this short stay.
I arrive in mid-August just as Campbell is working hard on her third novel and is in the midst of promoting her latest collection of stories. She is responding to a request from her publicist for a “playlist”—a compilation of music—to accompany her work, an offer to write a brief piece for Bustle, an online magazine for and by women, and cajoling an invitation to attend the National Book Awards dinner in New York in November (after all, she’ll be in town promoting her book).
But today is also chore day at her mom’s place, about three miles from where Campbell lives. She has her donkeys Don Quixote and Jack to tend to—both are fighting hoof fungus—and chickens to feed. Her mom wants a new electric chain saw. She also needs to stop at the post office and swing by Tractor Supply to buy the donkeys some oats. As she loads the 50-pound bags of oats in the cart, Campbell pauses a moment and tells me that these oats can be consumed by humans and could be a healthy, cheap way to feed a family.
Knowing how to survive, how to negotiate both the natural and social worlds, is a topic Campbell has spent a great deal of time pondering. In fact, her fiction is peopled with resourceful and skilled characters. Consider Margo Crane, the teenage protagonist in Campbell’s 2011 novel Once Upon a River, who is described as an embodiment of the Stark River, her escape route from a home that has become increasingly dangerous. Campbell writes, “When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her.” Margo Crane feels much more at home on the Stark River, relying on her precise shooting skills and hunting abilities than in the domestic spaces, where she is vulnerable to emotional hazards: abandonment by her mother, the murder of her father, and the sexual advances of a predatory uncle. Of course, the natural world hardly protects Margo from the dangers of men or the wilderness, but Campbell endows Margo with such knowledge and skill (she can shoot the ash off a cigarette) that readers root for her, hoping she finds her way to freedom safely.
In Mothers Tell Your Daughters, those same tropes of danger, vulnerability, and strength surround her female characters. In some cases, these women confront similar sexual threats as Margo, but in other circumstances the dangers come from less acknowledged sources—unwanted pregnancy, parenting (too much or too little), and poverty. And perhaps not surprisingly, at times the most challenging troubles reside in the primal relationships between mothers and daughters.
In the title story, a gritty, rural re-telling of Tillie Olson’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” we inhabit the point of view of an aging mother, who has just suffered a stroke, as she yearns to explain her actions and transgressions to an estranged daughter. Unlike Olson’s narrator, who pauses to acknowledge moments of regret, remorse, and guilt, Campbell’s narrator is too angry and unsentimental about her present state to do so directly. Her defense of her mothering style comes as internal monologue: “Stop going through my cupboards and drawers and envelopes that are none of your damned business and sit down and hear me out, Sis,” she wants to say to her daughter. Even while she is vehemently defending her choices of men who were sometimes abusive and predatory, we come to understand the desperation driving this mother’s life and the deep love she has for her daughter—an affection stated in the plain-spoken manner of a survivalist: “I never denied you kids the experience of pulling yourselves up with your own strength and holding tight to this life with your own claws. I had faith in you, because I knew you would be strong and would thrive against the odds.”
Giving voice to characters who have endured struggles without sentimentalizing their lives or making them mere victims is what Campbell does consistently well. These fleshed-out portrayals stem from Campbell’s careful intentions to write about “her tribe,” people she has known intimately in her hometown of Comstock Township, Michigan. With a population just shy of 15,000, one post office (anchored by a friendly woman, Colleen) and one library, Comstock is often eclipsed by its larger, more affluent neighbor to the east, Kalamazoo, known for its breweries, coffee shops, and colleges. Campbell’s tribe occupies a mostly rural area that, according to her husband Chris, “is rapidly diminishing.” Although there are wealthy areas of Comstock, it is still possible to buy a decent house for $30,000.
Campbell’s neighborhood, near the border of Comstock and Kalamazoo, illustrates this residential diversity. The ranch style house she and Chris purchased for $25,000 in 1987, sits on a concrete slab on a narrow dirt road, surrounded by lush woods, stretching beyond the scope of even Google Earth. Next door, in a little white country cottage, lives Chris’s brother Dave. A few blocks east, their oldest niece and her family who occupy another home owned by Campbell and her husband—a 1950 Lustron made of porcelainized enamel and purchased at modest price. And right in the middle of this Campbell/Magson family domain sits their direct neighbor to the west—the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program, which provides transitional residences for sex offenders. The housing situation suits Campbell just fine. She appreciates that the men don’t mind her cutting across their property on the way to her garden. Once when her neighbors spied Campbell’s young niece picking vegetables in the garden, they dashed back into their house, a gesture that made Campbell appreciate them even more.
Three miles from her own neighborhood is the site of Campbell’s childhood home where her mom Susanna lives and where her beloved donkeys and chickens reside. Susanna, who lives in the house her father built in 1946, is a compelling individual. At 78, having survived breast cancer, a recent shoulder replacement, and other afflictions, she looks frail, weathered, and tired. But ask her to tell you a few stories about her upbringing or share her ideas about the current politics of Comstock, and you suddenly feel like you’re sitting in a university lecture hall and you had better be taking notes. On the day I visit, Susanna is frustrated by Consumer’s Power. She has called to tell them that a tree has fallen on her power line in a storm, and is pulling the wire taut, thus threatening to tear the weather head off the house. “They never listen when a woman calls,” she says. She is sitting at a desk covered in all kinds of reading material, smoking a cigarette, and holding the latest copy of The New Yorker in her hands. “Can you imagine reading an article about Bonnie Jo Campbell, in this publication?” I ask her. She pauses and with great seriousness says, “Well, I’m not sure about that.” She knows the New Yorker well and she answers like a book critic, not a doting mother.
From Susanna, I learn about the almost spiritual attachment she and her family have to this property. After the death of her grandfather, who ran a construction company based in Chicago, her family relocated to a sixth-floor apartment in Hyde Park, and her father took over the family business. In one sentence, Susanna sums up the devastation she felt when she had to leave behind the pastoral haven of Comstock: “I had two horses.” Although she is a stellar student at the University of Chicago’s Lab High School, she is teased for being a country kid and secretly plots her escape back to Comstock. At 18, she meets Rick Campbell, a photographer for the Kalamazoo Gazette, when he is assigned to photograph a horse club where Susanna rides. She offers this explanation for her immediate attraction to Rick: “Well, when I met him, he was on a horse.”
They are married soon afterward, eventually make their way back to Comstock and Susanna’s childhood home, and have five children. After ten years of marriage, when her oldest is nine and her youngest is a year, the couple divorces, and this causes great economic distress for Susanna and the kids. Through sheer resourcefulness, she quickly discovers how to survive on 40 dollars a week child support. When the price of milk increases one cent a gallon (and the family is using four gallons a day), she decides to buy a cow. With the help of kind neighbors, Susanna learns how to milk the creature and eventually all of her children learn how to tend to animals. “I never looked back on the farming after that. Basically, I was farming to feed my kids,” she observes. Soon she acquires a couple of pigs, chickens, and calves. Looking back, she is proud of what she managed to accomplish with so little. “We were dirt poor, but we had plenty of food,” she explains.
Susanna’s stories and her gritty charm explain why Campbell is drawn to write realistic and honest fiction that showcases the strength of women. Campbell says of her mother, “I had someone worth watching as I was growing up.” The author emphasizes that her fiction is inspired by her family and her community, but is not autobiographical (her fictional mothers, for instance, are not based on her own mother). However, she does acknowledge that her mother’s farm inspired the setting for her story “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” (the last piece in Mothers Tell Your Daughters). In this playful work, the protagonist Susanna O’Leary tends to the biggest garden in Potawatomi, Michigan, raises donkeys, and is described as the kind of woman “who knows her own mind.” She is a divorced grandmother who works as a junior high cafeteria lady. When the story opens, Michigan is suffering a wicked heat wave. Susanna’s renter, Larry, offers to have his uncle Wendell, the owner of a heating and cooling company, look at Susanna’s broken central air unit, and thus begins a reluctant romance between Susanna and Wendell. Susanna is at first resistant to Wendell’s courting, but he is drawn to her clear-minded desires and expectations: When he asks if she prefers a tall man, Susanna tells him pointedly, “I prefer a man who’s not a lying, cheating, sly-acting son of a bitch.” After a few minutes in Susanna Campbell’s presence, it’s hard not to notice some similarities between her and the protagonist of the “Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree.” “Do you think you have anything in common with this character?” I ask the real-life Susanna. “Well, I am kind of an alpha female,” she admits.
My time in Michigan is quickly coming to an end and we have one final project to complete, a video interview with Campbell about her latest collection; it will serve as promotional material for her as well as an instructional resource for my students. We are heading to Susanna’s farm and will shoot the video sitting on bales of straw while Jack and Don Quixote meander behind us. As we pull out of Campbell’s dirt driveway, we notice a middle-aged woman, walking along the county road, pulling a suitcase behind her. She looks like she could have stepped directly out of one of Campbell’s short stories. It is a warm August day, and the woman looks tired, hot, and beaten down. Campbell rolls down her window, “Oh you poor thing,” she tells her. The woman nods. “I wish I could give you a ride, but I can’t now.” I ask her if she often gives rides to strangers and she tells me, “I would have given her a ride.” Of course, she explains, a ride usually turns into something more complicated and then she describes the long ordeal that many poor folks experience to find one reliable place to stay, one friend or relative who can offer them shelter or food or safety. It’s a life that Campbell does more than just depict for artistic acclaim; it’s the life she understands deeply and thoughtfully because she sees it not through the eyes of an ideologue or a clinician, but through the lens of a neighbor and tribe member. Because she documents such experiences, her readers spend some time with people who don’t typically occupy their neighborhoods or attend their city council meetings. “If a reader had a little more sympathy for such folks after reading my stories, I would be very happy,” Campbell says.
Alpha females who long for companionship, single fathers who suffer the ramifications of meth addiction, adolescent girls longing for freedom and finding themselves pregnant, maintenance workers trying to please a spouse always wanting more, a rural landscape quickly being obliterated by more industry—all of these circumstances capture the attention of Bonnie Jo Campbell, who renders them plainly. “Sometimes people ask me why I write about these kinds of problems, and I’ll say that the only problems that interest me are the ones that are difficult to solve—if a problem is easy to solve, there’s no point in writing a story about it,” she tells me. Campbell’s steady regard for the difficult, the terrifying, and the mysterious (whether in the natural or human world), make her art, like the beautiful swamps, worth preserving.