Friday, September 11, 2015

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters

by Bonnie Jo Campbell
W.W. Norton     2015
272 pages     Short Stories

In Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection of short stores, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, the difficulties of being a woman become quickly evident. Women are resilient, stubborn, and resourceful. Women are used, abused, and discarded. The fates of many lower middle class women rest in their relationship to the men in their lives. And mothers try to tell their daughters how it is going to be for them to become women in a hostile world.

No one writes better about challenged women than does Bonnie Jo Campbell. We were introduced to them in her first story collection, American Salvage. Although the characters are different, the themes remain. The first story that expresses the true nature of the mother-daughter relationship is called Tell Yourself, in which a mother with a young teenage daughter worries obsessively that her daughter may be too much of a flirt and consequently experience some of the abusive relationships that the mother experienced as a teenager. She  breaks up with her boyfriend rather than allow the possibility that he might be attracted to the girl. The girl, on the other hand, is appalled that her mother might suspect that she would be interested in an older man. “Of course, he is just one man of millions out there in the world, one of dozens of men who might take an interest in your daughter. . .” 

The title story, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, expresses with sadness the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. The mother in this story is dying of cancer, and her estranged daughter has come to be with her as she dies. No longer verbal, the mother muses about her life and how her daughter never understood the choices that she made in order to survive and to make sure that her children were raised. The daughter has become successful in life but is unable to give any credit to her mother or try to understand her mother’s life choices. The mother muses, “Someday, I hope, you’ll want to cut me down and gather me up in your arms, forgive me even if I can’t say I’m sorry.” 

Frankly, I admire some of the women that Campbell writes about—women who know exactly why they make the choices they make; women who make conscious decisions about survival; women who protect their children at all costs. At the same time, there is a terrible vulnerability in the women in the stories—women who have been abused, and who have so little but wish for so much. In one story, Someplace Warm, the mother seeks to make a safe place for her children but instead smothers them, and they rebel by leaving her.

Recently, the two women who work for me were able to get an apartment after many years in rooming houses and homeless shelters. The apartment isn’t much; just two rooms in a subsidized duplex, but their complete joy in having a place that is theirs is heartwarming. These women have cared for abusive spouses, slept in unlikely places, and fought mightily to raise three children together. I am so grateful that they are finally experiencing a bit of peace. These are the women of Campbell’s world. As a protagonist of one story says, “Our own home, a comfortable, well-lit place nobody can take away from us, where each of us has our own room and closet.”

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is not a pleasant, warm read, but several of the stories are unforgettable. The summary paragraph of the Kirkus review reflects that the book is “a fine showcase for this talented writer’s ability to mingle penetrating character studies with quietly scathing depictions of hard pressed lives.”

Campbell is a local author. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is the third book by her that I have read. The novel, Once Upon a River is based in Kalamazoo, and I was amused that so much of Kalamazoo shows up in Mothers, Tell your Daughters, including Campbell’s donkeys. I have followed Campbell on Facebook since our book club skyped with her when we read Once Upon a River. Check out her Facebook page and you will find her journey to this book and the guest readings connected with its release in October. I have included the advertisement for the book release party.

In addition to everything else I loved about the book, I was extremely attracted to the cover. 

The review on the Kirkus website. 

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