Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

“I need an interesting character in a difficult situation in order to write.”

So said novelist and short story writer Bonnie Jo Campbell during her master class at Rosemont last October, the day before the Push to Publish conference.

 “Then,” she continued, “I develop the situation to make the best use of that character.”

Those of us lucky enough to be there were treated to a five-hour long ‘up close and personal’ session with one of America’s finest writers.  This on the eve of the publication of her fifth book, the story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, glowingly reviewed that Sunday in the New York Times.

What a rare and wonderful experience!  Bonnie Jo’s ‘master class’ was less an inspirational lecture than a warm challenging conversation among equals, all of us engaged in the ambitious and arduous task of laying great words down on the page in such a way as to move and hearten and enlighten readers.

Bonnie Jo (she’s a first name kind of woman; the honorific Ms. Campbell is too formal; it just doesn’t fit!) proved to be as down-to-earth as her best-known characters; at once humble and self-confident, generous, and passionately interested in everyone and everything around her.

She suggested, and I, for one, agree, that writing fiction is mysterious, one of the most mysterious of creative endeavors; that it’s impossible to pin down exactly how to make it work; to write a playbook that will guarantee success.  Amen to that, Bonnie Jo. 

To me, her most compelling piece of advice:  “Write from the specific knowledge that you have that nobody else has.”  Bonnie Jo, who grew up and still resides in Kalamazoo, has made her career doing this.  She grew up on a farm, learning how to milk cows and castrate pigs.  She rides, she runs, she rows.  She has traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus, hitchhiked across country, and organized cycling tours throughout Europe.  In other words, she has plenty of specific knowledge to use as material. 

She practices what she preaches, as proved by her new story collection. Here’s my review, published first at

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new collection of short stories, her third, is anything but a page-turner.  Readers who gobbled her 2012 novel, Once Upon a River, should, when opening Mothers, be warned to adjust their expectations.  For that novel’s main character, the orphaned sharp shooter Margo Crane, 16, kept readers in her grip from the moment she, after a sexual misadventure with an uncle, and the murder of her father, flees her home place in a canoe with a stolen rifle.

The varied and marvelous stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters are a different breed of narrative.  They ask for, no, demand, slow contemplative reading and rereading, and they reward this effort with their wisdom, wit and grace; the abiding wonders of their language as it pirouettes from the profane to the lyrical in a sentence or a paragraph. For example, Buckeye, who sells cotton candy, in “The Greatest Show On Earth, 1982:  What There Was,” feels more than she can think, “her hip in short shorts touching his hip, her body filled with desire, filled with more than desire, her body and heart and mind all full up with Mike from loving him on his bunk last night, ready to love him again despite the heat, despite Red showing up.”

Campbell made her reputation as a writer of ‘rural noir’ with her first novel, “Q Road,” and her acclaimed second story collection “American Salvage.”  By no means does she abandon the hard-working, lovelorn women that are her forte, or the troubled men who insist upon residing on the edges of their lives, but Mothers, Tell Your Daughters also stakes out new territory in such stories as “My Dog Roscoe,” “Natural Disasters,” “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” and “The Fruit of the Paw Paw Tree,” with their smart, well-educated sassy women, their narrative loops and switchbacks – you can’t ever tell exactly where they’re going or how they’ll get there.  Like the best stories of Alice Munro, these leave in the mind’s eye fascinating contrails that demand a second or third look – with a deeper understanding gleaned each time.

Mothers also offers fresh perspectives on familiar Campbellian characters. Sherry, the lonely put-upon mother in “Somewhere Warm,” at last achieves serenity when she realizes, “love was not something you created for the reward of it.  Loving was as natural for a good person as shining was for the sun, and the sun shone whether the plants appreciated it nor not.  Some people could return your love, and others could only absorb it, the way a black hole took in all the light and gave nothing back, but that didn’t diminish the shining.

Or Marika, the phlebotomist in Blood Work, 1999,” which moves toward magic as she comforts a horrifically burned teen-age ICU patient: “More gunshots or fireworks sounded in the distance.  As if switched on, the thing in her hand came to life, pushed back against her palm, pushed and swelled.  Even without money she could alleviate suffering, and maybe she could infuse with life that which seemed lifeless.”

The title story, sixth of the 16, serves as the fulcrum around which the other stories spin.  Simple in conception, brilliant in execution, Mother, Tell Your Daughters, offers the bitter sweet wisdom of a mother in hospice, one silenced by a stroke, longing to tell her more sophisticated and better-educated daughter everything she’s never told her before, spilling out for the reader a profound, life-shaping mother/daughter bond that was never soft or easy.  “…Pretty soon,” she warns, “I’ll be dead and you’ll wake up and realize you’ve got your fist clenched around nothing.”  P. 99.  This mother is a signature Campbell character, a rural woman confined by lack of education and near poverty, but impelled by her tremendous energy and an abiding love hunger. “I never had the luxury of looking back at you—I had to keep my eyes on the horizon to watch out for what was coming next,” she imagines telling Sis.  “You complain about the way I raised you children, but I only wanted to survive another day.”

Slowly, the story reckons with their multiple mutual betrayals, not one of which begins to fray their bond.  At last the mother, considering her daughter’s worldly achievements, thinks, “You should’ve had a daughter of your own.  That would’ve been a bone for you to chew on all your life.  I guarantee, though, you wouldn’t win any award for raising a daughter.”

These stories made me laugh and cry and several of them wrung me out. They offer rare  and provocative insights into how some women have to live, and what we, who don’t have to live like that, share with them anyway. Maybe, for Campbell, this is a transitional work, one foot in the past, the other stretching forward.  If so, I can’t wait to read what’s coming next.

Julia MacDonnell is the Nonfiction Editor of Philadelphia Stories and the author of Mimi Malloy, At Last!