From the Greeks to the Gilmore Girls, fraught mother–daughter relationships have been a mainstay of literature, and five of the works of fiction discussed in this essay are no exception. The most sustained examination of such relationships is found in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, where a kinder, gentler Bonnie Jo Campbell is in evidence. The relentlessly grim take on contemporary midwestern working-class life that we have come to expect in a Campbell story is tempered in some of these tales by humor, whimsy, and light-heartedness. In “My Dog Roscoe,” a pregnant wife speculates that her old bad boyfriend may have been reincarnated in her troublesome dog, and in the story that concludes this volume, “The Fruit of the Paw Paw Tree,” the protagonist finds unexpected delight when she wakes up next to her air conditioner repairman. However, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, [End Page 181] like this Michigan author’s earlier volumes of fiction, constructs a perilous world of sex, alcohol, drugs, and male-generated violence to which vulnerable young girls fall victim, despite their mothers’ ineffectual attempts to guide them. In the title story, a dying woman tells her adult daughter that “‘women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes’” (92). She rationalizes the beatings that the men in her life have visited on herself and her children: “‘men did what they did back then and there was no stopping [them]’” (90). Whether due to rationalization, denial, learned helplessness, or actual powerlessness, a mother’s inability to protect her daughter is a theme that runs through many of these stories, offering insight into the cycles of poverty and abuse that condemn these women to repeat the similar failures of their own mothers. Read in light of these stories, the imperative of the title rings with ironic futility.
In Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton the eponymous protagonist, while hospitalized for nine weeks with an infection, attempts to work through trauma caused by an abusive and impoverished childhood in western Illinois to establish the loving relationship she has never had with a mother who is too damaged to say the words “I love you.” There is no superfluous furniture in this slim volume, a book that brilliantly exemplifies the minimalist aesthetic outlined in Willa Cather’s essay, “The Novel Demueble,” as well as Hemingway’s dictum that a short story should be like an iceberg, with much of the meaning lying, unstated, under its surface.
“Always that telling detail,” remarks Lucy when relating how an off-hand remark of her former lover made her understand that she could never marry him (28). Such telling details poignantly illuminate the nuances of this mother-daughter relationship as Lucy, a writer herself, offers them to the reader in lieu of overt explanation, much to the novel’s benefit. While discussing a woman from their hometown, Lucy and her mother say her name in unison: “‘Marilyn Somebody.’ We said this together, and my mother paused to smile; oh, I loved her; my mother!” (127). Those two little words shared by mother and daughter appear to pay big emotional dividends, creating a rare moment of empathetic connection until a moment later, when Lucy tells her mother she’s glad she’s here and her mother is unable to respond with anything but a nod.
Unable to confront their issues directly, Lucy and her mother slowly break down barriers and build trust and understanding by reminiscing about people from their town, reading a gossip magazine together, conversing about Lucy’s doctor and nicknaming her nurses. However, these moments [End Page 182] of sharing prove insufficient to bring closure and...