Bonnie Jo Campbell
paperback, 271 pages
Bonnie Jo Campbell is my totem animal. She writes the books I want to read, and for this I love her. Also, I suspect she can skin a muskrat, which inspires respect. I first stumbled across Campbell's Once Upon a River, and promptly went into hero worship mode. When I found out that Q Road's central character Rachel Crane is Margo Crane's daughter (Margo is the protagonist of Once Upon a River) I was looking forward to more about Margo. That expectation was disappointed, but I loved Q Road anyway.
Once Upon a River was set almost entirely on or near water. Q Road is firmly rooted in the land. Like Once Upon a River, Q Road is rich in detail and deeply informed by geography. Campbell understands the landscape where he novels are set (Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she has spent most of her life) at so many levels.The social, natural, and historical nuances of place are captured in Campbell's fictional Greenland Township. Campbell has a naturalist's understanding of the land she describes, and an anthropologist's insight into the prehistory of Greenland Township---the time before the Potawatomi Indians were displaced. Campbell's Greenland Township is her version of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha; a place shaped by history and the land. Greenland Township is a place where farmers are struggling to keep their farms, developers are encroaching on farmland, and prefabricated homes are popping up next to working farms.
Into this landscape comes Rachel Crane, a teenager who is being raised by her mother Margo, a kind of female Huck Finn. Margo has no use for men or society; Rachel hasn't really had a basis for such judgments. But while Margo is a creature of the river, Rachel is drawn to the land. Rachel is the result of a brief relationship Margo had with a Potawatomi Indian (an interlude fully described in Once Upon a River). Once Margo finally tells Rachel who her father was, Rachel becomes drawn to the land even more, fascinated by the legend of the Corn Girl, searching for her grave. Rachel's sense of estrangement and loneliness is only increased by her mother's sudden revelation:
The knowledge of her father felt like some kind of wound inflicted on her. How could words, the simple truth, cut through you like the bitterest cold or the fastest river current?Rachel is not the only character in Q Road wounded by loneliness and loss. George Harland, a farmer and a good man, who works tirelessly from dawn until night, falls helplessly in love with Rachel, to his utter shock and dismay. David Retakker, an under-sized boy who tries to make himself invisible, is neglected by his mother and longs to somehow help George...and perhaps someday be like him. This unlikely trio is at the heart of the novel, but numerous minor characters are fully developed in all their fears and desires.
Bonnie Jo Campbell is a writer who takes her time with her characters. She allows the reader to see inside the deepest recesses of the characters' hearts. This made me feel deeply attached to the people of Q Road. Campbell knows both her characters and her landscape so intimately, and writes of each with such luminous beauty, that her books are sheer pleasure.
Q Road begins with the narration of slow movement (a woolly bear caterpillar crossing the road. (I wondered if this was homage to the turtle crossing the road in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath). Campbell expertly combines this kind of slow movement and intense scrutiny of the natural world with intense human conflict and sudden violence. The narrative moves seamlessly toward a single dramatic even on October 9, 1999, with emotional tension building along the way.
What I most love about Bonnie Jo Campbell's work is the way that people and place are intricately entwined in her stories. Rachel Crane seems to literally come up out of the earth, the way that Margo seemed to emerge from a river. Once Upon a River and Q Road don't explain each other or work so much as a sequential story....they are more like complementary meditations on a place full of inexhaustible stories. I hope Bonnie Jo Campbell keeps telling these stories for a very long time.