My Review: Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage

As I was two hundred pages into a memoir that was marginally satisfying, I picked up and read the first story in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection, American Salvage. This story, The Trespasser, packed such a punch in four pages that I was instantly reminded of why I love short stories. I was shaken to the core within the span of ten minutes.

In The Trespasser, a family steps into their cabin to discover it has been broken into and turned into a drug haven. Although the family never sees the perpetrators, we learn what has transpired as the family rummages through their disturbed belongings. The violations that have taken place upon the family, as well as the young female trespasser are disquieting, and Bonnie Jo’s linkage of the two is simply haunting.

Bonnie Jo’s stories are first and foremost about the the tough rural life of Michigan families. Her characters are desperate, struggling to keep their clan together, often preparing for some impending doom while searching for their own redemption.

In World of Gas, a “cranky broad” rants against the men in her life. Her husband is gone, she catches her teenage son in bed with his girlfriend. Locals come into the hardware store making preparations for Y2K. Her father is coming to visit for the Christmas holiday, carrying his burdens and expectations as gifts. The voice of the distraught woman captures that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, upon which sits the truth.

The Solution to Brian’s Problem is written in second person, which puts you in Brian’s skin evaluating six options in dealing with your meth addicted wife. The story is heartbreaking as Brian details what he sees as his six options, all of which will lead to death or disaster to some degree. By the time Brian details his sixth option, you feel the sense of his despair and the thin thread by which people in this situation are hanging on. Heartbreaking.

In Family Reunion, a teenage girl has stopped speaking after an incident the previous year. She has become a remarkable hunter, shooting deer, and learning to gut the deer herself. Bonnie Jo slowly peels back the details of what transpired last year that led to the estrangement and the silence, ending the story with a dramatic climax that will make any man wince.

And Storm Warning packs a powerful punch as well. Actually, all these stories are just fascinating. I just loved this book and have re-read several stories already. Warning though – they are not for the faint of heart. These are desperate people making tough choices. There is violence, drugs, extreme poverty and even boar taint. Yes, boar taint.

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