Campbell shines spotlight on women in new rural noir


In promoting her new book, “The Waters,” author Bonnie Jo Campbell has been on a book tour that’s akin to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour in the number of stops.

In a conversation with Campbell from her home outside Kalamazoo, where she was packing for another road trip, this time to St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, I joked with her about needing a “world tour” T-shirt.

The tour will make its way to Michigan State University’s Main Library 5 p.m. Monday (Feb. 19), where I will have the pleasure of talking with Campbell about the new book, which is set on the fictional M’sauga Island in the middle of a primordial swamp where men have been banned by an herbalist named Hermine, who is called “Herself” and dispenses curative potions, salves and tonics. Controversially, one of those potions ends unwanted pregnancies for the nearby community’s mothers and daughters. Much of the book’s plot revolves around “choice.”

You won’t forget the eastern massasauga rattlesnake that’s lurking around every corner (if swamps had corners). Take my word for it, you’ll be wondering when Michigan’s only venomous snake will strike.

It’s also likely this is the first book you’ll read where the protagonist is nicknamed “Donkey” and is a math prodigy. (One of Campbell’s degrees is in mathematics.) Donkeys appear often in world literature, representing everything from humility to stupidity.

Donkey, Hermine’s granddaughter, doesn’t appear until chapter four, as we ease into the book’s heart-racing moments. In addition to Donkey, the youngest, the family includes her mother, Rose Thorn, who comes and goes, bringing with her powers derived from her beauty; Primrose, the oldest daughter, who lives in California; and Molly, the middle daughter, a nurse who practices what Hermine labels “the devil’s medicine.”

Though the book focuses on the women of the island, Campbell was adamant about making sure men played a role as well.

“At first, I wanted to write a book with no men — just strong women. But the world didn’t make sense without men. I love the men in the book,” she said.

Campbell may love the men, but they can do awful, violent things. There’s trouble brewing on nearly every page, and noirish drama abounds.

That’s to be expected from Campbell, who gained literary renown with her National Book Award finalist, “American Salvage,” which was followed up by “Once Upon a River,” a noirish thriller about a young girl on a river trip looking for her mother.

Several themes routinely pop up in Campbell’s books, including water, fertility, strong women, complicated relationships, the importance of family and redemption.

In “The Waters,” Hermine and Donkey serve as readers’ naturalist guides to the island’s lush environment, teeming with wildlife, plants and mercurial delights. Campbell shines when writing of the natural world that’s so dear to her.

Campbell said she wanted to call the book “Donkey” at first. For those who don’t know, she has two donkeys of her own. On a telephone call with her editor, they talked about titles like “Fury,” “Muses” or “Fate,” but they landed on “The Waters.”

“‘The Waters’ enabled me to use water metaphors in final revisions, like when I describe Herself ‘flowing into the room,’” Campbell said. The title also allowed her to insert topics that are dear to her, like global warming and pollution.

“I have a lot of hot-button issues in the book, but the trick is that they’re local or neighborhood issues, which we can solve at the neighborhood level,” she said. Regardless, “baby killer” signs keep popping up at the entrance to the island, which is protected by a drawbridge.

Campbell said she had fun writing about nature and the swamp.

“You had to pay close attention to get it right, especially during the different seasons,” she said. “It kind of helped I grew up on a swamp. We called it a creek, but it was a swamp with a creek running through it.”

She was also inspired by her grandparents’ cottage, which was located on an island in the St. Joseph River. As a kid, it was where she would spend summer days.

“The only way to get to it was by a walking bridge,” she said.

“The Waters” has a fairy tale-voodoo-backwoods feel to it, but Campbell said she also “wanted to explore identity politics and the concept that people don’t know who they are anymore.”

In the book, she attributes some of this to the end of factory work, the end of farm life and the loss of good jobs.

One thing I can say about the book without giving away too much is that the women of M’sauga are about to find out who they are.

In a way, the book tour is also helping Campbell discover who she is. Before her appearance on NBC’s “Today” show with Jenna Bush Hager, she followed directions and went to a makeup artist.

“She made me look like a clown with Groucho Marx eyebrows,” Campbell said. Fortunately, the show’s makeup artists made her look like herself again.




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