|Sunrise over cornfield|
This past week I re-read Bonnie Jo Campbell’s novels, Once Upon a River and Q Road. I could say that my re-reading was in anticipation of the new novel coming out in January 2024, but in truth that was not in my thoughts at all. I just wanted to be on the river again with Margo and on the farm with George and Rachel and David.
I have written about these books before. In the order of writing and publication, Q Road came first; in the chronology of the two fictions, however, Once Upon a River, the second of Campbell’s novels, begins the saga. Campbell wrote Once Upon a River when readers (and probably the author herself) wanted to know more about Rachel’s shadowy mother, a strange, unsociable, gun-toting woman who had lived for years on an old homemade houseboat on the Kalamazoo River and made her living by hunting and trapping, but who disappeared early in the Q Road story, leaving teenaged Rachel to find her own way in the rural world outside Kalamazoo.
|Margo Crane fried slices of puffball fat from a duck she killed.|
In my re-reading this time around, I began with the river journey that brought Margo Crane to the Kalamazoo River and followed with her daughter’s story, choosing fictional rather than publication chronology.
Campbell’s characters in these novels, as is the case with those in her short stories, do not dwell on the shores of Lake Michigan, Superior, or Huron. They live in the state’s interior, often in somewhat scruffy, forgotten corners – or, like George Harlan and David Retakker of the Queer Road neighborhood, on land originally farmed by the Potowatomi, then in the 19th century by white settlers, and now, at the end of the 20th century (Q Road is set in the year 1999), threatened by fast-encroaching suburbia. Rachel is there because her mother moored her houseboat on that particular stretch of the river, at the outlet of a freshwater creek, before Rachel was born. George is in the area because his great-grandfather was one of the pioneer white farmers.
|There is always water in Bonnie Jo Campbell's books.|
|The new book coming next year is simply called THE WATERS.|
Campbell’s central characters are individuals that psychologists call satisficers rather than maximizers. They don’t ask for everything. Instead they welcome hard work and can live, satisfied, with a lot of imperfection and difficulty, as long as what is most important to them is in their daily lives. Here, for instance, is the boy David:
…If he lived with George, he’d get up early every morning and feed the animals. David would go to school if George insisted, but he would make it clear he’d rather stay home and help with farm work.
|Ripening field corn|
George inherited his devotion to barn and fields, but boy David and adolescent Rachel love the same acres with equal ferocity. Asked why she married an “old” man like George, Rachel replies, “I wanted his damn land.”
Other characters have different feelings about the land they inhabit or, in the case of George’s friend Tom Parks, the land they have lost. Sally, David’s mother, lives rent-free since her husband, George’s hired man, took off for parts unknown, but Sally longs for California: the house sheltering her and her son and the land surrounding it mean nothing to her. Another young woman, Nicole, feels that marriage brought her life to an end, rather than giving it a real beginning, and she fantasizes about murdering her husband. An older married woman on the same stretch of road, retired from her job as a school bus driver, awaits the coming of aliens from outer space.
Milton converts a barn into a bar and grill, in hopes of bringing people to Jesus, while Steve (whose wife dreams of murdering him) bemoans the monogamy imposed on him by marriage. Neither Steve nor Milton can get anywhere with Rachel, although both of them try. They just don’t have anything she wants.
History, both recent and long ago, comes into the picture also in the minds of the key characters: the Potowatomi, marched off their ancestral lands in a previous century; a schoolteacher driven away when it was discovered she had been “in a sinful way” with one of the neighborhood’s farmhands; a barn consumed by fire when the husband of the wife whose family built it ignored her warnings and filled the barn with fresh hay not yet dry; and a tornado that blew away the house the driven-away teacher had lived in. Everywhere, too, graves marked and unmarked, known and unknown.
Q Road conforms to a classic form. Like Greek tragedy, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Wolff’s Mrs. Dalloway, the story unrolls in a single 24-hour period. Written in the third person throughout, the novel’s point of view shifts among various characters, and thanks to Campbell’s sympathy for her characters, the reader also is able to feel sympathy for them all, though probably in varying degrees.
George’s story began with his great-grandfather and will continue on this land as long as he lives, whereas Q Road will doubtless be only a dusty chapter in Sally’s life by the time her life story comes to an end. Rachel’s longing is clearly to imprint herself on the land and incorporate the land’s story into her own. We are also given brief glimpses of this rural world through the eyes of a cat, a bird.
Throughout the 24 hours, from one autumn morning to the following day, woolly bear caterpillars are ceaselessly performing their seasonal migration, crossing the road in an attempt that will end in death for many of them. “It is land they have occupied for centuries,” we are told in the novel’s first paragraph, and throughout the novel the woolly bears’ periodic appearances are remarked in different ways by the various characters.
|Wild apples behind old barn are good eating and good keeping.|
Later we are told –
Autumn woolly bears didn’t ask for much, just a little protection from automobiles, tractors, stomping livestock, and spiked golf shoes, so they could survive long enough to freeze, thaw, and build a cocoon of silk and their own bristles, so they could make it to that most remarkable of days in late spring when they would awaken into wings and become invulnerable to the old dangers. Next spring, just like this spring and the one before, a good number of the caterpillars would wake up from under logs, spin cocoons, and emerge as small white moths to dance like pieces of ash above a fire, with only a short time in which to mate before dying.
Like the woolly bears, George, Rachel, and David don’t ask for much and are willing to endure anything to hold onto the “little protection” given them by the farm. As we read, we ache for their fears and sorrows and are thoroughly invested in hopes for their future on Q Road.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why this novel is not more widely known and more highly acclaimed. As far as I’m concerned, it belongs in the all-time top rank of Michigan fiction and is a pure American classic for the perfection of its form, its deep and loving knowledge of Midwest farmland past and present, and for characters brought to life on the pages of a book, people who surely “dance like pieces of ash above a fire” in readers’ mind long after the book has been closed – until the next re-reading.
|Roadside alfalfa remnants of former hayfield....|