Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

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Mothers, Tell Your Daughters

I probably should have warned my book group about Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, a short story collection by Bonnie Jo Campbell, when we picked it last month. It’s been very well reviewed and the content of the book rings a lot of our bells: women’s issues, family relationships, profound psychology, etc. But when we picked it, I remembered hearing Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot describing it in her mostly positive review as “every bad thing that can happen to women” (as best I can recall).

“Playhouse.” Our protagonist isn’t sure what happened to her at last night’s party. She remembers getting drunk and arguing with a few people, but that’s it until she goes to help her brother fix her niece’s playhouse. He tells her about two men and some pictures. Her brother keeps downplaying what must have happened as our protagonist grows more and more alarmed and disturbed. There’s a particularly good metaphor—a physical wound that hurts the protagonist but that no one except the specialists see—that makes this story the perfect rebuttal to, “What’s the big deal?” and “Why didn’t you tell them to stop?”

“Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.” This story is all internal monologue. Our protagonist has been rendered mute by a stroke. Her daughter grudgingly cares for her as she reflects on her hard, hard life. Unlike Susanna in “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” later in the collection, this protagonist’s life was full of hard work and the misery of bad (sometimes abusive) relationships with men. If only her daughter could hear her words as our protagonist tries to explain why she did the things she did. Our protagonist thinks:

All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand and 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. Now I’ve come to know that women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes. (91*)

The women—battered and worn—live on after the men die. Maybe that’s all the reward women like our protagonist can hope for: a little more life.

“Blood Work, 1999.” The cliche tells us that the more we give, the more we get. For Marika, the more she gives, the more she just keeps giving. Her family is annoyed with her for giving away her inheritance to charities. They just don’t understand why she gives without getting any other reward than warm fuzzies. We don’t often see stories about saints. We could stand to see a few more.

“The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree.” I adored this story. Unlike many of the others in this collection, the protagonist Susanna is not broken. I’m glad it was the last story in the collection because I needed to read it after all the misery that came before. Susanna is a tough, hard-working woman in her 60s. For most people, one’s 60s are when one slows down and turns over work to younger people. But Susanna has grandchildren to watch, a baby donkey to nurse, a broken tractor and central heating system, and just too much to do. But she carries on because she wants to. She could kick out the grandchildren and get rid of the donkey. She could sell the farm. But she doesn’t. She worked for it and gets to keep her patch of earth and her family. And, as a bonus, she meets a man who loves and admires her for all of this.

That said, I am glad I read it. I’m really looking forward to tonight’s discussion. I do wonder if I’m the best audience for this book. This is a book that’s going to appeal to women, because it talks about our struggles. But I feel it needs to be read by men who don’t understand. Some of the stories, “Playhouse” in particular, are all about how women are discounted when we try to speak up. I recall a few months ago, when I spoke up about some of our female student workers being flirted with by male student who wouldn’t leave, my male colleagues didn’t see what the big deal was. It took some explaining to make them see the problem. I was angry and frustrated with them. How could they not see what I was trying to show them? If I had had Bonnie Jo Campbell in my arsenal, I would have made them read a few of the stories.

In summary, the stories in this collection are hard to read. They’re supposed to be. They’ll linger in my brain for a long time as I try to puzzle out all their layers of meaning. I highly recommend Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

* Quotes are from the 2015 kindle edition by W.W. Norton & Co.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to male readers who don’t see what women cope with.

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