Thursday, June 3, 2010

American Salvage

Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell                                 
Published 2009 167 pages                                                      
Wayne State University Press Detroit
ISBN 978-0-8143-3412-6
From my personal library
Rating: 3 - Pretty good

American Salvage, a product of the Made in Michigan Writers Series at Wayne State University Press Detroit, is a collection of fourteen short stories written by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

Each of these stories is set in down-and-out rural Michigan. Most of the characters are damaged by poverty. Some of these families are laboring under poverty so exhaustive that it seemingly offers no hope for a better life. Simple things can be a crisis for these families: the gas bill, dinner, school shoes for a child. These things rise to the level of crisis because the characters cannot conceive of the long term because the short term necessarily commands all of their effort and attention. For the most part this is all they have ever known. They believe that they are doing all they can but not gaining any ground. Consequently, they fall into a belief that they are at the mercy of "others," whether it be the family, the boss or the government (Y2K!) They feel powerless against these forces.

This is best illustrated by a young girl from The Inventor. "She has long imagined her future spreading out before her, gloriously full of love and discovery; she has been waiting for the future to arrive like a plate full of fancy appetizers in a restaurant, like a lush bunch of roses placed in her arms, like the biggest birthday cake with the brightest candles, baked and lit by people who love her."  This is a response and an accommodation of poverty; not imagining she could go out and create a future for herself, difficult as it would surely be.

My two favorite things:

This is my favorite quote from the collection: "It landed with a resounding clang on the pile of catalytic converters- mostly they were dirty and rusted from the slush and mud and road salt, but each of their bodies contained a core of platinum."  This is from King Cole's American Salvage. The character in this scene performs back-breaking labor outside in all types of weather, for little money, in an auto salvage yard, but he has plans and determination and resolve to make a better life for himself. This may sound odd to compare human potential to a catalytic converter but I take the quote as a metaphor. Some of us don't look like much on the outside but there's a valuable core of promise.

My favorite character is Jill from Boar Taint. She has discovered a way of coping with her economic circumstances. She indulges herself by buying gourmet chocolate bars one at a time. She keeps them in her underwear drawer and breaks off one square each night until the bar is gone. Then she goes out and buys another. This small act says that Jill still believes she is valuable; that she does indeed have a core of platinum.

American Salvage has won an impressive number of awards: 2010 Michigan Notable Awards, 2010 National Book Critic Circle Book Award, Stuart and Venice Gross Award for Excellence in Literature from SVSU, 2009 National Book Award Finalist, and the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award. If you are a fan of realist American regionalism (as I am) and a fan of short stories (ditto) then you may find many things to like in this collection. However, if you are not a fan of these genres then you should probably pass by American Salvage. It is not for the faint of heart.

I give this a 3- pretty good.

And remember that love does not conquer meth!!


  1. I'll have to check this one out! And truer words were never spoken...indeed, love does not conquer meth. :)

  2. This does sound good. Even though I've never delt with these sort of problems in this kind of extreme, it all sounds pretty relatable. And I like Jill already :)