American Salvage

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage includes the best girl-getting-her-own-back (after sexual abuse) story I’ve read since, oh, Bastard Out of Carolina.

It’s a great collection. I picked it up because of its references to Kalamazoo, Plainwell, Comstock, and other small towns of my youth, references that, in another mood, would have sent me screaming from the room.

These are towns that don’t often make it into the pages of literature. And neither do Campbell’s characters, but they are so vividly realized and familiar that I found myself wondering if Campbell went to my high school. Except that if she did, it was a generation later — the drugs are more contemporary than the ones I remember; lesbians exist, and are visible on the fringes of these stories in a way they weren’t when I lived there. Women (and the male characters, too) have complex, difficult lives, and the complexity of their lives is well realized. These stories took me back to a life that I might have lived. They remind me that the expensive choice of leaving was a bargain. They remind me that the line between working poor white (Is it politically incorrect to say White Trash yet?) and escape into a kinder existence is as narrow as one good teacher, a scholarship, a pair of glasses, or the dumb Russian Roulette luck of not getting pregnant in a particular moment.

There are too many lesbian mentions in this book and they are too kindly for coincidence. Maybe, later in the collection, there’s a story with lesbians characters front and center, I’ll let you know if I find it.  But in the meantime, get your hands on a copy of the story “Family Reunion.” Circulate it among your friends and to all the women you know who survived some nasty something with adult male relatives back in their youth.

And someday, when someone puts together an anthology of girls-getting-(well justified)-revenge tales, let this be the lead story. I admit that it took me a good 24 hours after I read it to laugh. But I did laugh out loud when I went back to read it again. Campbell’s aim is that incredible, and her target is just perfect. 

PS: For another great, well justified (although much slower to arrive) rape revenge story, dive into Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. It’s Atwood at her wicked, insightful, brilliant (and feminist) best.

Margaret Atwood signing 600 copies of Year of the Flood at NCIBA. Photo by Carol Seajay
American Salvage
Bonnie Jo Campbell
WW. Norton
$13.95 pb Dec 2009

The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood
$26.95 cloth Sept 2009

Margaret Atwood signing 600 copies of The Year of the Flood at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association office. Photo by Carol Seajay.





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