Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection Mothers, Tell Your Daughters gives away the main content of the stories. But, you’re not just going to get stories about mothers and daughters, nor are they all similar. For instance, a character’s feelings may hinge on the word of someone else. In “Playhouse,” a young woman wakes up after a party at her brother’s. She can’t remember exactly what happened, but thinks she may have been raped. Her brother neither confirms nor denies that she was raped, even when he saw what happened — as if he thinks rape is an iffy label. In the story “Tell Yourself,” a mother won’t believe that her boyfriend isn’t molesting her daughter, even though evidence suggests he is not, unless he confirms it verbally. And even in “The Greatest Show on Earth, 1982: What There Was,” a woman wavers on her decision to have an abortion because she’s waiting for two co-workers to tell her what to do. Campbell deftly writes women who struggle to act unless told what to do, which is unfortunately common. Woman can suffer from learned self-doubt in a society in which men are the authority.

Another theme is confessing one’s sins or faults. Here, Campbell wisely makes it hard to determine if these “wrongdoers” should be forgiven, acknowledged as doing their best, or deemed a product of their time. The narrator in “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” is dying. She can hear her daughter and nurse talking about her, but is too weak to respond. She thinks about all the things her children, especially her one daughter, likely blame her for. She doesn’t want to say sorry for surviving and loving. In “A Multitude of Sins,” the husband is dying and his wife is the caregiver. For years, he called her names and hit her, and now that he is bed bound, she returns the abuse because he won’t (or possibly isn’t lucid enough) to admit he mistreated her. What role do we play when a loved one’s life is coming to an end, Campbell seems to ask.

Variations on motherhood include prostituting as necessary to make ends meet, deciding that a woman is too old or young to have a baby, and how children can be made out of a joyful moment in perpetually horrible circumstances. I wasn’t a fan of the number of mentions of women being raped. Even if the story was not about sexual assault, most women in the first half of the stories mention a rape at some point, and while I know statistically it’s realistic, I felt Campbell dropped something into a story that didn’t further the plot or explain the character’s motives within the story.

My favorite story was the last, entitled “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree.” A grandmother, who appears to be raising many of her grandchildren, can’t understand how things have changed, such as why people don’t drown inbred litters of kittens anymore, or how easily she was talked into bottle feeding a baby donkey whose mother rejected it, rather than letting nature take its course, so “Now Susanna had donkey that had grown to a hundred ten pounds of hand-fed trouble, and nobody would even share her fantasies of roasting it on a spit.” But as her grandchildren teach her about life beyond utility, which includes the animals, I felt warmed as she changes.

All stories are set in the Midwest with most characters coming from farming or self-sustained living backgrounds. Parents aren’t wealthy, women are made of sterner stuff, and children are more likely to play in the mud and sleep in rooms with lead paint than find playgrounds with engineered wood fiber so no one falls too hard.

13 comments

    • I oftentimes wonder if collections and novels about mothers and daughters all basically say the same thing, but I think the midwestern farm life makes a difference here. Even then, regardless of setting and income, the characters want someone to guide them. I’ve been feeling that lately myself!

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      • There is a certain universality to the mother-daughter relationship but setting makes a big difference too. I still sometimes find myself wishing an adult would come and tell me what to do. And then I remember that I’m the adult now!

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        • I was going to ask if your folks are still around and nearby, but then I remembered learning in an anthropology class that in the U.S. we really struggle to learn about parenting from one generation to the next because things change so quickly and we don’t have a communal sense of parenting. In other cultures, both the communal sense of child rearing and less dramatic change with technology and whatever capitalism is driving at the moment, means new moms can learn from older moms.

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          • I think that’s so true! My kids are already growing up in a vastly different space and culture than I did. Honestly, that’s something that I have found very hard during this pandemic. When making choices about how to handle things this past year and a half or where to take my kids or what to avoid, there are no experienced parents to turn to. My parents never raised kids during a pandemic or a global climate crisis or in a culture where active school shooters are a thing. Let alone all the technology that exists now. I often feel like I am fumbling through brand new territory with no guidance.

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    • My focus has been off lately, so I listened to an audiobook by the comedian Tom Papa, and that helped. I think funny memoirs often pull me out of a funk. I’ve also read a couple of romance novellas lately, and that helps, though if they are too predictable I lose focus.

      While Campbell’s stories may not speak directly to women today, I think they inform us about where our own mothers, and possibly grandmothers, were coming from. That insight is helpful because I know people can hang on to bad feelings in connection to mothers especially.

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  1. Since you wrote about Bonnie Jo Campbell’s two pet donkeys in your comment above and have enjoyed stories about my bicycling nurse grandma in the past, I want you to know that she once impulse-bought a live goat while driving to visit her parents, who lived about ninety miles away. She put it in the passenger seat and gave it to her parents as a pet when she arrived, even though they lived in the city! It lived in their garden for a while but had to find alternative residence on a farm because it kept eating the washing when it was hung out to dry. (Apologies if I have told you this story before, it’s one of my favourites and I always forget who’s already heard it).

    As for the book, it sounds too grim for me right now – though of course very important. The story of the abusive relationship between husband and wife (where abuser becomes abused and vice versa) in particular sounds both awful and quite plausible – I imagine that happens quite a lot in informal carer relationships.

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    • Oh, Lou. I had not heard that story before and my heart is so happy for having read it just now. All the details, from putting the goat in the passenger seat to the thing eating the clean laundry is a hoot. I even love that you were careful to note that this was a “live goat” that grandma bought on impulse! Ha! Nick and I once drove from the western side of Indiana to the eastern side of Ohio, and somewhere in there was a spray-painted sign that said RABBITS FOR SALE DEAD OR ALIVE. Good gravy, that sounds like zombie rabbits to me, though I know my head can go funny places. Also, are these people advertising to both the kinds of people who want pet rabbits AND the kind who eat them?? I’ve seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wouldn’t stop there.

      As I read the story about the wife abusing her husband in his last days, I did think of both you and, I want to say Kate? (from booksaremyfavouriteandbest? — definitely an Australian book blogger who works in hospice). How do we treat a terrible person in their last days? How do we let them die with dignity — both ours and theirs?

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  2. This sounds like a dire collection of stories. Still, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t read them, but as you say, with all the mentions of rape alone, one must steel themselves. Also, I suffer from a ton of self-doubt, so I can probably relate to many of these stories, which is unfortunate!

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    • I know you disagree, but in my head I always picture you as a fancy lady. Campbell’s stories are very much work boots and overall ladies. But, maybe you would see yourself in these characters’ internal lives.

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