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.