Sunday, January 21, 2024

The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale-like rendition of a rural noir narrative with exquisite descriptions of the land and the people formed by it. Hermine “Herself” Zook has three daughters. Primrose, the eldest, is a driven, justice-seeking California lawyer. Mary Rose, called Molly, is a rigid, church-going nurse who lives nearby. Rose Thorn, who’s lazy and beautiful, is desired by most men in their area of southwest Michigan. Eleven-year-old Dorothy, Hermine’s granddaughter called Donkey, because she was fed donkey milk when she was born, lives with Hermine on her island in the midst of vast wetlands. Donkey is a genius who loves math, has never been to school, and has the characteristics of a woodland sprite. The Waters is set within 6,000 acres of state-protected land near the fictional town of Whiteheart, Michigan where Hermine cleverly restricts access to her island home.

Campbell’s Once Upon a River is one of my long-time favorite novels and The Waters is reminiscent of that book in its gorgeous rendering of the land, the people who populate it, and the strength and resilience built into the main characters. The Waters opens like a fairy tale with “Once upon a time M’Sauga Island was the place desperate mothers abandoned baby girls and where young women went seeking to prevent babies altogether.” The Waters highlights the importance of women having the right and ability to determine if they should have children while also celebrating women who choose to have them and caring for the children themselves.

The Waters is slow to build and readers desiring a fast-paced novel won’t find it here. What they will find is a deep and abiding concern for taking care of our land and for making sure that we heal the earth and those it harms when our byproducts do damage. Campbell explores the elusiveness of these tasks:

“In the Michigan state government, environmental protections were relaxed, and the plans to clean up the mounds of paper mill waste in the Waters were delayed for lack of funding. The legislature justified these decisions by saying they would instead institute tax breaks to benefit businesses, although no business in Whiteheart benefitted from the lower taxes. 

The Whiteheart post office closed that winter, so everybody now had to drive eight or ten miles around the Waters to the Potawatomi branch, and people missed talking to their neighbors while waiting in line. Teenagers, always the most creative and innovative members of any community, learned how to cook methamphetamine over burn barrel fires. A handful of girls cut themselves secretly with razor blades for the rush of sensation it gave them, and one boy shot himself in the head with his father’s pistol because of how some other kids talked to him at school. He didn’t die, but people said maybe he should have, given how he ended up.”

Summing it Up:

Read The Waters to enjoy its portrait of rural southern Michigan, reap its environmental insights, and meet Donkey, a unique, otherworldly character. Stick with it for its caring ending and the way it tells the story slant. If you haven’t read Once Upon a River, rectify that immediately. Campbell is one of our best writers, a National Book Award finalist, and a strong supporter of the environment. The Waters is a “Read with Jenna” Book Club selection.

A Note: Jenna Bush Hager of the Today Show’s “Read with Jenna” Book Club says “if you loved Where the Crawdads Sing, you’re going to love, and I’m saying love, our first read of 2024.” I didn’t find the books to be that similar other than on the surface. Yes, both feature precocious girls in rural settings, but The Waters is a meditation with an otherworldly feel whereas Where the Crawdads Sing is primarily a murder mystery with a realistic exploration of flora and fauna. 

Rating:  4 Stars 

Publication Date: January 9, 2024

Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website:

What Others are Saying:

Foreword Reviews: 

Kirkus Reviews: 

Los Angeles Times: 

The Washington Post: 

“Baggy writing, drawn-out scenes, and twee character names aren’t doing this story any favors, but Campbell’s immersive descriptions manage to suck the reader into its swampy setting. Patient readers will be carried away.” —Publishers Weekly

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