Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell is one of those short story collections which has a unified theme, but not in that Chicken Soup for the Soul sort of way. Every story here is an account of what it means when you’re a woman in a world where being a woman can be a thankless minefield of emotional and physical violence and disappointment.
Highlights include: “Blood Work, 1999”, about a bleeding heart phlebotomist, one of the most engaging stories about loneliness I have read. “Playhouse” which was a gutpunch story about rape, which manages to be Important without being overbearing or preachy. In “A Multitude of Sins”, the main character is a woman faced with caring for her dying husband who abused her throughout their marriage. The title story, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” is told as a letter from a dying mother to her women’s studies professor daughter about how she did the best she could.
I can see how a short story collection about women’s experiences, told without sentimentality, can seem to some people to be too much: too pointed, too feminist, too whiny. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters does not try to hide the fact that women are the focus, the hero, and the antihero all at once. There is sexual assault, woman being gaslighted into disbelieving their own experiences, young girls being preyed upon, but don’t confuse this with making man the villain. Men are simply on the outskirts of narrative focus, whether they are villainous or kind. (From the title story, my favorite part of the book: “All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand or 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.”)
There is also the general human experience in these stories full of loneliness and alienation and grit. The stories are mostly set in rural and suburban places among working class people. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters reminded me of cowboy movies with a twist.
“The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” ends the collection on a hopeful note, the preceding stories making the sentimental love story somehow new and refreshing. A little sweetness after so much difficulty. (“Susanna has not been expecting that she would wake up one day, and find that life had gotten easier, that coffee would smell better, that tomatoes would peel with less effort…”). Even when the stories are upsetting, the collection itself culminates to a sort of redemption, a reflection on the quiet ways that life makes it up to us, how all of our pain can sometimes lead to tasting something sweet and new. By the end, the point of the stories isn’t that it’s hard to be a woman, but that being a woman is a fine, strong thing to be.