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Michigan Bookmark: In “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” mom’s warnings fall on deaf ears

Oct 20, 2016

How do we respond to betrayal? Where do we turn when our horses bite us, our fiancés sneak into haylofts with other women, our husbands date their college students, our daughters run off with our boyfriends, our brothers place us in harm’s way? These are the kinds of predicaments Bonnie Jo Campbell confronts in her latest story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

The book opens impressively with “Sleepover,” which features two sisters who bond over a secret kept from their mother, a secret steeped in their awakening to both the addictive attention and the fierce power of men. The story forecasts one of the book’s major themes: the inability of mothers to protect their daughters from the pain they themselves know all too well. This anxiety begins early, when children are still in the womb, as the pregnant narrator of “Natural Disasters” chronicles the many threats to her child: every sharp-edged table, paperclip or wall outlet streaming electricity portends doom. Nancy Drew mysteries become projectiles, snowsuits are suffocation chambers. The narrator dreams of “a cushioned world without edges, a world of foam rubber … a world in which walls … bend and curve in response to pressure.” But comfort is hard-earned in the worlds Campbell creates, and the reader is grateful for it.

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As the daughters who inhabit these pages grow into adolescents proud of their beautiful bodies but unaware of their power, the threats intensify. Mothers work desperately to find the words that will convince their girls to be careful without alarming them, begging them to conceal their bodies while knowing they won’t, hoping their teenagers do not attract unwanted attention while fighting the knowledge borne from devastating experience that they almost certainly will. Though mothers warn their daughters, their concerns are often dismissed, ridiculed or belated as the girls have already suffered the dreaded fate. This is the heartbreaking irony that is woven throughout the book: the mothers’ biggest fears are frequently realized, the events they rail hardest against appearing inevitable.

Campbell offers complex, relatable characters in settings as diverse as circus cars, hen houses, burn centers and Transylvanian mountains. The women in these stories auction livestock, break horses, dress out chickens, and castrate mules. But they also sew curtains, raise bees, nurture gardens, and love their children. They are hard drinking and hard loving, unflinching in their rage against and hunger for the things they work to keep their own daughters from wanting. We know that they will not succeed, that the girls, along with rocking chairs and housekeeping lessons, will inherit a desire for the very things that can destroy them.

But it’s not just the women who are wholly human and therefore flawed. In “Playhouse,” Janie is assaulted after her own brother unwittingly directs her assailants to her. Here Campbell delivers a suspenseful, heartrending story in prose bursting with sensual imagery: flowers are “pink fobs on a flowering bush [that] thump me and wag as if mounted on springs” and “beds of irises crowd the flagstone path and paint my bare legs with mustard-colored pollen.” Men figure prominently in the book, driving the women to pine after or shun them, to fear or crave them, often simultaneously. Men plow fields and crawl into mines to support their families; they beat their children and abandon their wives when they grow angry or frustrated. When her educated daughter criticizes her mother for allowing her father to beat her, the narrator of the title story clarifies the relationship of the sexes, saying, “All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and the women were whatever sand or water or air claimed the space left between them. That’s how I saw things as a young woman, that was my women’s studies.”

Bonnie Jo Campbell does not shy away from the complexity of fraught relationships in the 16 stories that comprise Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, which are masterfully delivered in prose that is deft, confident and often darkly humorous.

Dorene O’Brien is a Detroit writer who has won the Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award, and the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award. She is a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellow and her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, won the National Best Book Award in short fiction.

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.