As a tornado warning sounds, Barb opens gifts at her baby shower, and "folks fill plates with snacks, pretending the world is a perfectly reasonable place to raise a child." Tornadoes are, really, the least of the expectant mother's concerns.
It's a hard-luck, hardscrabble life in the world of Bonnie Jo Campbell's stories, a landscape that's as fertile as it is unforgiving, where families crop up and wither with the weather but manage some piquant humor and moments of worthy reckoning along the way. We may be in the Midwest most of the time, but the territory's much more like Annie Proulx's rough West than Jane Smiley's farmland.
"Mothers, Tell Your Daughters," the title says, but what? You, too, can grow up to get dead drunk and be raped at a party, only to have your brother protest, "Protect you? Hell, if you ever come trying to protect me when I'm in the bushes with two hot babes working on me, I'll kick your ass. I was respecting you, Janie."
Or you, too, can find love at the circus, where you hawk candy, but discover that it's not enough to spare you another abortion. Or maybe you'll just have to abort a baby because you're too old, your own daughter's pregnant and your husband, the father of your four girls, has taken up with one of his students. Or after a lifetime of being brutalized by your husband, who drove away your son, you might discover a strange power in bullying him as he lies helpless and dying of cancer. (And yet, damn it, you can get him to beg only God for forgiveness.)
Or once you're married to a good man, your no-good old boyfriend might come back from the dead in the shape of a much better-behaved dog. "He and I had grown up together, after all," you can tell yourself, "and if Oscar had lived, he probably would have turned his life around and behaved better eventually."
It's this familiar kind of often misguided but no less effective belief (People can change! There's hope!) that keeps these characters going — along with the hard-won understanding that carrying on is just what you do.
"When I had a voice," a dying woman thinks, as her disappointed daughter bustles around her deathbed, "I didn't know how much I wanted to say to you, to explain how I lived my life the way I could, and that if there was a way to say no to some things then it was in a different life."
Ellen Akins teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Wisconsin.