In a lot of ways, Bonnie Jo Campbell reminded me of a Midwestern Flannery O’Connor. Like O’Connor, she carries a strong omniscient voice through most of her stories; she fixates on the working class and rural landscapes; she does not shy away from violence or grit (neither does she romanticize it); and she fuses the strange, the beautiful, the sacred, and the profane in short tales that bear the whiff of myth about them.
But let none of that imply that Campbell is not unique. She is.
I perked up to American Salvage because its stories span my native land in southwest Michigan (Campbell’s native land, too). Who isn’t interested in the stories others tell of the places they’ve lived and loved, places that created them? For a gal from small town Michigan, these tales–especially in fiction–are few and far between. Perhaps this contributed to how struck I was with Campbell’s characters. The militia men, the hunters, the underemployed custodians, the farmers, the lonely-hearted bigots, the lovers of wilderness and gardens and animals, the protective parents, the dreamers, the meth addicts, the young teens with the old souls: it sounds hokey, but I know these people. I’ve never seen their stories told before with such truth, and I was really moved at how Campbell revealed them. They, every one of them, are worth salvaging.
I knew I’d love this book before I picked it up. And yet, as I devoured it over this last week, I still found myself surprised at how it felt, that love. And I’m surprised, frankly, that others who don’t necessarily have a connection with the Midwest similarly fell in love with American Salvage. As a journalist accustomed to having my story ideas that have anything to do with the Midwest turned down for being too “local” for national publications (while New York/California stories are, of course, never too local for these same publications), I’m used to those who live elsewhere not being familiar with what is fantastic and powerful about this landscape. But in fact, Campbell’s book–originally published by Wayne State University Press as part of its “Made in Michigan” series–ended up being a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, one of the most prestigious literary honors in the U.S. and one of the few small-press books so named.
From the National Book Foundation’s citation:
In American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell picks through the ravages of a small-town America gutted by shifting demographics, new technology, and methamphetamine. Eschewing nostalgia or bitterness, she leads with her curiosity, using canny observation and sensuous prose to coax the reader into dark, strange, primordial territory. These short stories approach their subjects from an array of perspectives, but what they share is freshness, surprise, and a compulsion to plumb some absolute extremes of American existence.
The publicity has brought Campbell significantly more readers–every one deserved. These fourteen stories shake in the bones. Their telling is agile and nuanced; while concise, each story has a sort of lingering feel about it. One reads this book feeling as if we, like the characters peopling a post-industrial land, are on the edge–a way of life ended, or begun; the ground shaking beneath our feet; lives strained and transformed; the smallness and bigness of it all. This is no theory. This is experienced bodily — certainly by the people of American Salvage and, through this potent and visceral book, by us readers too.
Upcoming appearances by the author:
- Apr 17 – Bonnie Jo Campbell at A Night for Notables
- Apr 25 – Bonnie Jo Campbell at the Scarab Club
- Apr 28 – Bonnie Jo Campbell at McKay Memorial Library
- May 11 – Bonnie Jo Campbell at Comstock Library
- May 25 – Bonnie Jo Campbell at Otsego Library
- May 26 – Bonnie Jo Campbell at Three Rivers Library
- Sep 12 – WSUP authors at Kerrytown Book Festival