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Joining the Circus

  • May 16, 2006
Utterly impressed with Bonnie Jo Campbell's novel, "Q Road," I eagerly picked up her story collection, "Women and Other Animals." I do realize that most every writer has strengths that fall into one genre, usually, more than another, and after reading Campbell's stories, I believe this author's strength is long prose such as in novel form. These stories, however, do show the master stroke as well.

In 16 stories, Campbell writes about a memorable array of girls and women. I understand the collection title to signify that in each of these characters there is something of the basic survivor, the animal that we all are in the sense of seeking out what we need to live and, hopefully, to thrive: sustenance, companionship, the occasional adventure. These are not women who live easy lives. Dealing with hardships, whether poverty, abuse, or abandonment, or simply cruel strokes of misunderstanding, these are women who do what they must to make it through the day. Each has a kind of eccentricity to her that has, perhaps, been born of her ability to survive, the way a tree grows around the wire fence that cuts into its bark. Each story seems to have a common thread connecting all with some form of abuse, or hint of, that drives the character forward and gives them each a voice uniquely her own.

Campbell's writing style is skilled, and she allows for just enough local flavor to make the stories come alive but not so localized that they don't resonate with the common experience against all kinds of backdrops. Every woman has had to survive her tests and perhaps even every woman has had to endure some type of abuse at some point in her life, and so the stories resonate. But then, they have just enough humor, just enough "oddness," that we can sit back and read and chuckle and shake our heads, roll our eyes, and sigh with wonder that we did not join the circus, after all. Life is circus enough.

A strong collection, worthwhile reading. But don't miss this author's longer works, either. It gets even better.

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Zinta Aistars ()
Ranked #134
I am the creative director, writer and editor at Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate station, where I do on-air author interviews.
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The 16 stories in this bold and eloquent debut collection feature women from Michigan's Lower Peninsula who bite, claw, flee from danger and follow their instincts, revealing their untamed inner selves. In "Circus Matinee," an escaped tiger stalks Big Joanie as she distributes snow cones to a circus audience. Several stories juxtapose the beautiful and the grotesque. In one, a local beauty contemplates a future with "The Smallest Man in the World"; in "Eating Aunt Victoria," a teenage girl and her brother come to terms with their late mother's gruff lesbian lover; in "The Perfect Lawn," an adolescent boy obsessed with a cheerleader also finds room in his fantasies to include her alcoholic, desperate mother. Campbell portrays misfits in middle America's economic and social fringe with subtle irony, rich imagery and loving familiarity, describing domestic worlds where Martha Stewart would fear to tread. In "Bringing Home the Bones," a Holocaust survivor and farmer's widow scalds herself badly while canning beans, and ends up losing her leg, the accident causing her to rekindle her relationship with her two daughters. Campbell's protagonists are hard on themselves, but sympathy is often forthcoming from unexpected sources. The young protagonist of "The Fishing Dog" depends on the men she meets to care for her, and it is her good fortune to fall in with a gentle, patient fellow who welcomes her to his riverside fishing shack. In another tale, a junior high school girl learns to ...
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ISBN-10: 0743203070
ISBN-13: 978-0743203074
Author: Bonnie Jo Campbell
Publisher: Scribner

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"Joining the Circus"
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