Review: Mothers Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell (short stories)


The Short Stories

I rarely read short stories–they’re either too long or too short for my taste. I admit I did not read all of the stories in this collection–some were just too disturbing. This collection was nominated for a prestigious award and was touted as a “Book of the Year” by NPR, which is how I learned of it. Then I saw the cover, which is perfect, and decided to read those I could tolerate.

“…reasonableness and positivity can feel like a kind of bullying.”

These stories are “gritty,” or “earthy”–I think those are the usual euphemisms for stories in which the mother’s boyfriend molests the daughter. That seemed to be mostly what these stories were about. Loser men figured in too. Loser men who treated women like crap, and women who were proud of taking that crap and living to tell. In short, this is a collection of stories on White Trash–people stuck in poverty because they don’t have the brains God gave them when it’s time to make choices.

“As I saw it, those men were just picking up where your daddy left off. He would have kicked your asses plenty if he’d been around. How was I supposed to figure out by myself when you children needed beating? How was I supposed to have the energy to beat you?”

Sex pays the light bill. Sex gets the car fixed. Well, she’d have had to learn what a man wants sometime–why not now, seems to be the only comment the mothers in these stories would have made on their daughter’s forced loss of innocence. And, later on, they’d just say “You’re a middle-aged woman, too old to hold onto a childhood grudge.” A grudge about a rape, a #metoo moment. While privately they might have given 10 seconds to re-thinking it all:

“Maybe I thought it would’ve been selfish to say, Hell, no, you can’t kiss my eleven-year-old daughter.”

Sadly, there’s a vast swath of the American population who live like this. No, not merely in trailer parks, but also in worn-out houses, grandmothers’ basements, uncles’ garages, and cousins’ unwanted campers. They live in apartments and duplexes, townhouses, and the occasional carport in wide spots in the road, in small towns, mid-sized cities, big cities  and otherplaces in the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt, the potato fields of Maine, the potato fields of Idaho and all of This Land.

“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.”

The men do hard physical labor or kill bugs or waterproof basements or drive semis or stand by an assembly line. Or do nothing. The women may do the same or they may wait tables or cashier groceries. Work is part of their lives, especially if it involves being payed under the table. Cheap coffee, cigarettes, and beer are daily necessities. Domestic violence, substance abuse, confusing geneologies, and lack of parental involvement round-out the picture. No one likes to see anyone get “above themselves” or to get “the big head.”

“Of course I was proud of you going to college. Any mother would be. I didn’t think it needed saying.”

And when you went away to college, you abandoned all of us.”

They stand in line to pawn a nail gun or an air compressor, to get a title loan on a pick-up truck or to to get a fake nail filled.  If they like you, they’d give you the shirt off their back, but they’d also kill you if you look at them funny. Salt of the Earth if it wasn’t for the bad sex decisions, the fist fights, and the yard dogs kept on chains.

“Men inhaled great swaths of oxygen, exhaled smoke and sweat, so sometimes I could scarcely catch my breath.”

This is poverty, but not a romantic kind of poverty. The Joads were better off enduring the grapes of God’s wrath. These folks are too stubborn to change, too stubborn to get an education, too stubborn to move for a better job. These stories accurately relect the miasma and fog of their lives, and let us feel the lack of what academics call “empowerment.”

If you want to read about extreme disfunction, come away more depressed than you already were, then this is your book and these are your stories. If you live for Oprah’s book choices, this is your short story collection. In spite of not liking the story lines in these stories, I would like to read something else by this author.

My Verdict

3.0 Stars

For another take on girls in poverty see:



Girlchild: A Novel by Tupelo Hassman


2 thoughts on “Review: Mothers Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell (short stories)

  1. Too sad, -even if true, as you say-. I don’t know, I find your three stars good according to what you say. If this is all the content of the short stories, I’m simply and sadly not very up for it. I know.
    Great review, Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

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