Bonnie Jo Campbell (hardcover, 280 pages, Scribner, 2002)
Q Road, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s first novel, introduces readers to the beauties and hardships of a present-day Michigan farming community in decline, through an ensemble of characters that includes an evangelical bartender, a window salesman with a weakness for women, his neglected wife who spends a little too much time thinking of ways she can murder him, an asthmatic boy and his good-timing mother, and most importantly, Rachel, a rugged girl with a round face, raised by a fierce mother. Rachel provides the still center of the novel, her vegetable stand the touchstone for the community of Greenland Township and, more specifically, for the denizens of Q (or Queer, as the locals refer to it) Road. The story revolves around love, violence, fire, and ghosts – a powerful mix that Campbell pulls off with great skill and affection.
Campbell locates the moral weight of the novel in the character of Rachel, the foul-mouthed, gun-toting child-bride of George, a farmer who owns several hundred acres and the oldest barn in the county. Rachel, raised by a sort of proto--survivalist, reclusive mother who taught her how to kill and eat animals, how to swear to make herself heard, and how to live off and with the land, is raped by George’s brother Johnny as a young teenager. Her mother takes it upon herself to shoot Johnny, and Rachel buries him. Rachel’s mother disappears, Johnny’s whereabouts remain a mystery, and George finds himself oddly attracted to the young girl who has no visible means of support except a small plot of river bottom left her by her mother. If this sounds like an inauspicious beginning to a marriage, it isn’t. Rachel’s true love remains the land, and George has lots of land to offer. The land itself serves as a character in the novel, and Campbell lavishes great attention upon its history and character and the details of the season. The novel takes place in autumn: readers are treated to woolly caterpillars that cross the road in droves and tiny pumpkins that hardheaded Rachel sells for a dollar a piece for Halloween decorations. These details, along with the brilliant fall trees and the ragged beauty of the rundown barns and farms, form a fitting backdrop for the passions of the novel.
Rachel and George’s marriage provides a surrogate family for David, a young boy whose mother spends most of her time in the bar or at home, dreaming of a more exciting life in California. David inadvertently performs the action that leads to the climax of the book, bringing the community together to watch the massive destruction that can accompany one careless act. It's a big, dramatic dénouement, yet the bulk of the novel concerns itself with the complicated and often surprisingly tender bonds that Campbell's characters form with one another. Whether it’s the bartender’s concern over Rachel’s salvation, Rachel’s concern over whether David gets a decent meal, or George’s wonder over his new wife, the ties between them survive with a tenacity worthy of their best intentions. These bonds get tested by the climactic event at the end of the novel, but prove more enduring than the physical objects that are sacrificed. Even in destruction Campbell's characters find an odd joy, a release, which shows them, and the reader, the sense of possibility in loss.
This possibility also stems from the history of the land, a haunted Native American backdrop that remains ever present in the lives of the characters. In particular, Rachel finds solace and fascination in the secrets that the land contains. Campbell writes:
People now buried their dead high on hills, but back then Potawatomi put folks into the lower, more fertile land near the river, and instead of securing them in houselike coffins, the Potawatomi wrapped bodies in what, in the drawings in library books, resembled collapsed wigwams of skins and grass mats. Rachel dreamed repeatedly that she herself was lying on the bare ground, surrounded by mounds rising up around her as though they were rows of the dead . . .
Q Road gives a glimpse into a world that few nowadays have the good -- or hard -- luck to experience, a rural world, somewhat run to seed, that effortlessly blends past and present. Campbell shows readers how joy and destruction can coexist in the same small space, how the bleeding heart of Jesus can adorn a bar, how one small caterpillar can make its arduous journey across the road only to be run over by the wheels of a young boy’s bike. It’s about a world struggling to exist in spite of developers, in spite of uncertain weather, mounting expenses and small returns. The land nourishes the characters, gives shape to their lives, until one cannot imagine them existing anywhere else. Given this powerful first novel, readers will be eager to follow Bonnie Jo Campbell -- with her exquisite melding of a fading past and an uncertain future -- down any number of roads, A to Z, country and otherwise.
Michelle Brooks earned a doctorate in creative writing at the University of North Texas. Her work has been published, or is forthcoming in Blue Mesa Review, Baltimore Review, and Phoebe.