Hanging out in Michigan with Bonnie Jo Campbell and the folks in her short stories

What’s Really Going On in Kalamazoo, Michigan: Bonnie Jo Campbell tells it like it really is…the bad, and the good.

I don’t like to read about situations or characters that seem to hip to me, or too urban…I like to read about people who have what I perceive of as “normal”.  They have jobs, they have families, they live their lives.  Things don’t always go well, but they aren’t tragic either.  To me, that’s life.

 That’s the feeling I get from Campbell’s characters in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.  A couple of them come very close to completely messing up their lives, but almost always, they don’t.  A couple of them have experiences that you think might justify “going under”, but almost always, they don’t. For example, in “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom” a sort of perennial ABD college instructor (that means “all but dissertation” towards a doctorate) makes an appearance with her stereotypical professor husband who thinks-he’s-hot-shit –because-he-can-seduce-a-college-student (he’s not: we all know the type), but I even like her because she’s not dramatic about it.  I mean, if you have spent anytime in graduate school or possibly undergraduate university, you know the cheating professor is a cliche. Come on. 

Most of the stories are set in the present time in the vague-ish American Midwest: we might presume they are in Michigan, Campbell’s home, but it isn’t clearly defined.  Some of the characters are young, and some not so young.  The good thing about all of the characters is that even though life is a challenge for them…a big challenge..and many are flawed, their flaws do not destroy them. I get impatient with stories when the characters can’t get themselves together, at all, and I suppose they don’t seem real to me.

In school they told us that tragic heroes have to be larger than life, so maybe that’s why tragedy involving “normal” people just doesn’t work. Anyway, to me, an author who relies to strongly on failure is just using a different kind of cheesy sentimentality as a crutch.

Real people have good stuff happen along with the bad, and that’s what I see here.

Early on in the book, I thought the story “Funhouse” was not going to go well, and I wasn’t sure I would make it past this story. Some grisly things happen, but I’m happy that Campbell doesn’t take any of the “easy outs” that she sets up for herself. She also gives me (the reader) little enough that I need to figure out what bothers the protagonist.

I especially enjoyed the last story, “The Fruit of the Paw Paw Tree,” and was happy to be left with that in my mind because it’s about a woman who has lived her life, is happy with what she’s got…and then gets surprised. She’s older; she’s a grandma. She’s there for her family, she’s there for herself, and apparently we still have a hot, desirable woman under all of this.

We also get at least two stories coming from surprising settings: one circus story (1982, as the title tells us), and one story that you think is going to be Gothic but is actually about life behind the Iron Curtain.  And ok, it is still kind of gothic, but good. I was surprised by these unusual settings, but interviews with Campbell reveal that she has cycled in Europe and worked for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey circus, so apparently she does have a basis for them. 

If your library doesn’t have anything by Bonnie Jo Campbell, especially this book, which is my first, tell them to get on it.  Let’s help her cross over.  If she doesn’t have to teach, maybe she’ll go to happy hour with us and hang out. 

Try not to be put off by the Amazon descriptions.  The poor writers can’t help it, but Campbell is not as pretentious as they make her seem.

More about Bonnie Jo Campbell

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Quick Reads

Free Reads

Campbell has a pretty interesting personal website, including a blog, Gorilla Girl Adventures in Writing, with lots of photos. If you are unfamiliar with Michigan, in the midwestern United States, you should check it out.

You can find Campbell’s story “Boar Taint” here along with a link to an interview (not a story from Mothers).

Read “My Sister is in Pain” from the Kenyon Review (found in Mothers).

Lithub.com article on Bonnie Jo Campbell by Lisa Durose written around the publication of Mothers: Bonnie Jo Campbell: Writing the Other America (Note: I don’t like this title because it makes Campbell’s writing sound depressing, which it isn’t).

Read “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom” from Mothers on Lithub.com.

“Literary Fiction”: When you want something more from your reading


I saw this book on a list from Book Riot, and after not being able to get it from my local library, I was able to get a brand-new copy from the library in my neighboring city, which tends to purchase the more “literary” titles. 

It seems to me that the line between “literary” and “mainstream” fiction gets more and more hazy, and certainly the most popular literary authors are also mainstream.

As a reader, when you feel you want to read “better” books, you probably read some or many of the better “popular” authors, but you are craving reads that are somehow more fulfilling. You are seeking books that are more “literary”

On the surface, the term “literary” means that the book or story makes use of a range of techniques to help create meaning. Popular fiction might be more titilating in its subject matter, and the author may be less talented or at least takes less trouble with supporting the story through the use of these techniques, which include style, language, symbolism and/or motifs.

You know when you read a book straight through just to find out what happens, but then afterwards, you kind of feel like you ate too much candy? It was fun while it lasted, but you don’t really feel like you took anything away from the reading? You don’t think about it? And you might feel like you wasted your time? The book that makes you feel this way is a popular read.

You may enjoy another book just as much, and you don’t feel that it’s particularly hard to read, but after it’s over, it sticks with you a few days? And you keep thinking about it, or wondering why it ended the way it did? That’s a literary read. You don’t have to be aware of all the different techniques that go into a literary read; in fact, if it’s done well, you probably shouldn’t be. The merit of the work reveals itself after it’s over…. You’ve enjoyed yourself, and you’ve been entertained, but you also feel that you’ve gotten something besides a fleeting feeling of excitement for your trouble.

For a long time, we have had institutions to help casual readers figure out how to cross this line. For much of the second half of the 20th century, we had the Book of the Month Club, which carefully selected the “best” of current books on the basis of literary qualities, relevance to current events, and general interest in the topic. 

In an altered form, the BOMC is still around, but I think that a shift started to occur when Oprah Winfrey introduced her first book club.

Using organziations like the BOMC or Oprah’s (and other book clubs) have there merits, but if you want to read more than one book a month or go deeper with your reading, it’s good to try to figure some of this stuff for yourself.

With the Internet (including websites such as The Lois Level) and other mechanisms, it’s easier than it ever has been to figure out what might work for you, and perhaps continue to grow as a reader (which I believe also makes you grow as a person).

One of the keys to navigating through the literary world is to understand what “bubble” you are in, and also to know that “literary” authors are not for everyone…and in some cases, they are just too much.

Because I have background in literature, I can recognize merit in a work of literature, but I don’t enjoy reading some of the greatest authors for a variety of reasons, even if I do appreciate the author’s talent.

Authors that I do enjoy, and share with you, are good enough not to need to wave their “literary” flag under my nose…of course a master should make it look easy…and they also have a vision of the world that makes them worth inviting into mine.

Bonnie Jo Campbell is now a member of that club.

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters has the look of a literary work because of the cover art and book design. Also her biography says that she teaches in an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program, which implies that she doesn’t earn her living full time from writing but also teaches. Many literary authors are published by small publishing houses, which you may or may not recognize, or there may be an indication that the work was “subsidized”, which means that private philanthropy paid for the cost of writing and publishing the book, which might include paying living expenses for the author, rather than solely through a contract with a publishing company.

It’s good to have authors that write part time if they have to and are supported by other means because we need to have voices in print to share ideas and experiences even if they are not popular enough to create a big audience. It’s kind of the same thing as having public television.

So at least once in while, take a chance on something unfamiliar. You never know.

More by Bonnie Jo Campbell