Wednesday, December 9, 2015

"Mothers, Tell Your Daughters," by Bonnie Jo Campbell

In “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” (Norton, 2015), by Bonnie Jo Campbell, we are definitely in the land of Dorothy Allison and Carolyn Chute, so it is no surprise to see that those two authors blurbed Campbell’s short story collection. The stories are about working class lives, often tough lives, especially for women with minimal resources. The settings are mostly in the poorer areas of Michigan (a state where the author herself lives, and where I used to live many years ago, and that are recognizable to me, although I was fortunate not to live in the less prosperous areas). Some of the characters are indeed mothers and daughters, and in any case are mostly women. These are stories of pain, abandonment, poverty, and living on the margins, and also stories of grit and survival. That sentence is full of clich├ęs, I know, and although those attributes are in fact the subjects of the stories, they don’t feel as grim -- or as stereotypical -- as the sentence suggests. I like these stories very much, first because they are so well written, but also because they remind middle class readers that there is a big part of the United States that is rarely portrayed in literature these days: the working class and the poor. In media stories, yes, sometimes, but not so much in fiction, which is why I alluded to the work of Allison and Chute, even though their most well-known work was published quite a few years ago. All three of these authors write about disadvantaged women, but women who don’t ever let their poverty and other problems define them. I had never heard of Campbell before, but now she is on my “I’ll read anything she writes” list.
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