Thursday, February 14, 2008

Q Road: Book Review

Q Road,* a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, was one of my luckier finds from the free paperback swap shelf at my local library. I read the back cover, stuffed it triumphantly into my bag (leaving a trashy mystery in its place), and promptly forgot about it for over a year. I finally got around to reading it this week, and discovered that it wasn't anything like the quirky story that the blurb on the back promised: it was much, much better.

Q Road
is an occasionally dark, thoroughly gritty, and often poignant look at the lives of a handful of people of rural Greenland Township in southwestern Michigan. Much of the story takes place on October, 9, 1999 - and it should be noted that early October is one of the most beautiful times of the year in the Midwest. Historical vignettes featuring some of the characters and their ancestors range back to the 1830's, when the Potawatomi were forced out of the Kalamazoo area; the 1860's, when the big barn that is central to the story was built; and the 1930's, when a tornado destroyed a farmhouse next to the barn.

For me, some of the appeal of Q Road was in Campbell's skillful portrayal of the woods and fields, the river, and the gardens and farmstands of her native Michigan. I grew up in a small town surrounded by farms in northern Illinois, and have lived in southeastern Michigan for over twenty years. My present house on the edge of town backs up onto one of the few remaining farms in the area (luckily it's in a farmland preservation program); in the twenty years I've been here the amount of open area that has become big box stores and subdivisions is staggering. And the conflict between suburbanites and farmers on Q Road could have been taken from our local paper. So her portrayal of similar situations on the western side of the state isn't too surprising. But the insightful way that Campbell describes both the people and the land (and even some plants and animals) itself did surprise me.

There was a lot of fascinating information on birds seamlessly woven into the story, and as a former archaeologist, I was tickled to see that the remains of Native garden beds (see some maps of these ridged fields below, and if you have journal access through an academic library, here's an article on them) played a role in the story. The Indian gardens weren't all hokey and mystical in the book, either, but were part of an unflinching look at the land and its changing uses.

Similarly, the people of Q Road were portrayed with their complications, ambiguities, and flaws, and a refreshing lack of stereotypes. Not every farmer's son was a wholesome son of the soil, and the philandering aluminum window salesman wasn't wholly unlikable. The old women were particularly realistic and entertaining - and when was the last time you read about a little old lady that was anything but sweet and boring? (Apart from Janet Evanovich's Grandma Mazur, anyway). The two retired women on Q Road couldn't be more different from each other, but both were fascinating in their own way.

What I really want right now is a sequel - like one set ten years later, in 2009. I don't see any signs that Campbell is doing this on her website, so I've had to content myself with buying her book of short stories, Women and Other Animals, and hoping it's as good as Q Road.

"Ancient Garden Beds" illustration from MSU's map library, from History of Kalamazoo County, Michigan, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers, by Samuel W. Durant. Philadelphia, Everets, 1880.

*Q Road refers to the name of the township road in southwestern Michigan where most of the story takes place. O Road and P Road are also mentioned, but Q Road and the Kalamazoo River and a handful of other memorable places - George Harland's 160 year old barn, a drafty farmhouse, a houseboat made out of an old trailer, a new manufactured house, and the Barn Grill - form the meaty backbone of this book. I'm not sure that the title helps sell it, though, and I thought the hardcover dust jacket was hideous (the much more attractive paperback cover is shown above).

Strangely enough, put Q Road in its "horror and mystery" section. I guess there is a little horror (though not much of the supernatural kind) there, and there's a little mystery - but really, I think Q Road should go on the bookshelf next to Jane Smiley's books, or Steve Amick's The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake and Meghan Daum's The Quality of Life Report. Although they're non-fiction, Michael Perry's books (like Population: 485 and Truck) could go on the same shelf. If you have any other suggestions that capture the essence of the Midwest with sympathy and without saccharine, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.


Maw Books said...

I think I found my perfect book for my "Q" title for my A-Z challenge. This sounds great. Thanks for the recommendation. I enjoyed Jane Smiley's books so this sounds like a great one. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy that you enjoyed Q Road. Bonnie Jo Campbell is my aunt, landlord, neighbor, friend... I stumbled upon your blog while googling: prose, michigan, land, garden, kalamazoo. Neat to suddenly find a good review of her book here!