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'Mothers' Tells Stories Too Often Silenced

Bonnie Jo Campbell burst upon the literary landscape in 2009 with a collection called American Salvage that was raw and resonant, telling stories of the Rust Belt with frankness and an infinite patience for the voices of those whose stories are often left untold. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle award. And now she's back, after a novel (Once Upon a River, an updated female Huck Finn tale) with an even stronger collection.

The title story is narrated by a woman dying of lung cancer in the house where she was born, nursing a broken rib, mentally trying to explain herself to the grown daughter who resents the life she led: "You complain about how I raised you children, but I only wanted to survive another day." This "bone tired" woman sets the stage for the 16 stories in this new collection when she muses, "I've got a head full of stories you still need to hear, starting with my ribs, ending with my whole life." These are contemporary mothers and daughters stretched beyond human capabilities, each desperate to be heard, but despairing of an audience. Campbell rescues them from invisibility.

There's the abused wife taking her revenge as her husband wastes away in "A Multitude of Sins," the sister talking with her older brother about what happened to her at his latest party, an incident she was too drunk to remember ("Playhouse"), and the mother-to-be at a baby shower in "Natural Disasters," her fantasies so full of the dangers faced by her newborn that she sees her own body as a cage of bones sharp enough harm her baby at birth.

In the intimately confessional, unforgettable "To You, as a Woman," Campbell relates the story of the hard-pressed mother of two sitting in an E.R. after being gang-raped: "I don't know what you have been through today, but since I woke up in pain at three a.m., my whole day has been a nightmare."

The story of Susanna O'Leary, aged 63 ("The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree"), who has "long tended the biggest garden in Potawatomi, Michigan," begins on the day her Ford tractor dies after 45 years of faithful service, worn out by the "unholy heat." By the story's end, Susanna encounters an unexpected delight, her first taste of a pawpaw, offered by a new man in her life: "Susanna savored the sweet dense flesh ... She took another bite and wondered how on earth she had lived without this fruit all these years."

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is filled with shifts like this, when a turn of fate, a moment in nature, brings surprises and revealing insights. And within the turmoil and the troubles, the demands and the limits of life, Campbell reminds us, there are possibilities for moments of grace.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.com among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.