Synopses & Reviews
The stories in this prizewinning debut collection encompass train wrecks, circus acts, river journeys, transspecies transmogrification, and growing up and growing old around the small towns of Michigan. Without glamorizing poverty, Bonnie Jo Campbell details a vision in which shabbiness, beauty, brutality, and wisdom all coexist -- and yet the stories can be surprisingly optimistic, often funny.
In "Sleeping Sickness," a twelve-year-old copes with the sexually charged atmosphere at home by carefully tending her vegetable garden. In "Bringing Home the Bones," a farmer who prides herself on self-sufficiency must lose her leg before she can meet her estranged daughters halfway. In "Eating Aunt Victoria," a young woman finally looks into the face of her dead mother's lesbian lover.
Campbell's hard-working, sometimes hard-drinking, women protagonists are both dangerous and vulnerable, living without seat belts or televisions or the right kind of love. Not surprisingly, the children in these stories often look beyond human role models to dogs, cows, and even gorillas.
Campbell is a storyteller every bit as gifted as Larry Brown or Eudora Welty, a social commentator and word-smith of the first order.
About the Author
Bonnie Jo Campbell is also the author of Q Road. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Reading Group Guide
A SCRIBNER PAPERBACK FICTION READING GROUP GUIDE
Women and Other Animals
1. The circus provides the backdrop for both "Circus Matinee" and "The Smallest Man in the World." What symbolic significance does the circus (or carnival in the case of "Gorilla Girl") have in both these stories and to the book as a whole?
2. "It should not surprise anyone that P. T. Barnum himself pioneered the modern beauty contest, recognizing that striking beauty was fundamentally no different from any other aberration" (174). Campbell depicts extreme beauty and extraordinary ugliness as two sides of the same coin -- outward appearances function as both prisons and modes of escape. Discuss, paying particular attention to "Circus Matinee," "Gorilla Girl," and "The Smallest Man in the World."
3. Food, eating, and obesity play a significant role in several stories, especially "Eating Aunt Victoria," "Bringing Home the Bones," and "Celery Fields." How do Victoria, Charlotte, and Georgina use food to affirm their places/roles in the world?
4. Women and Other Animals examines the ways women cope alone and in relationships with men. Describe the different relationships between women and their husbands or lovers in such stories as "Sleeping Sickness," "The Fishing Dog," and "Taking Care of the O'Learys." What is the power structure of each relationship?
5. The bonds between mothers and daughters are an essential part of "Rhyming Game," "Sleeping Sickness," and "Bringing Home the Bones." In these stories, often the daughters worry and watch over their mothers. Discuss the dynamics of these relationships. How do they affect and shape these young women?
6. Violence, including rage, is an integral part of many of the experiences depicted in Women and Other Animals. Discuss the different forms violence takes and the ways the various protagonists respond. Why do you think that violence is such a pervasive part of this collection?
7. On one level this is a series of coming-of-age stories. From Big Joanie's confrontation with a tiger on the loose to Gwen's journey downriver toward Lake Michigan, these are tales about women surviving. One of the characteristics that a great many of these protagonists share is extraordinary strength. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the different protagonists and how these qualities define their relationship to the world.
8. "Shifting Gears" and "The Perfect Lawn" are the only two stories written from a male perspective. Discuss these stories within the context of the collection. Do these stories differ from the others? If so, how? How are women portrayed in these stories? How do they compare to the female characters in the rest of the book? Why do you think Campbell chose to include these stories?
9. All of Campbell's protagonists are isolated, even those that we see in the context of family or community. Describe the different forms of isolation and the ways it strengthens and/or limits these characters.
10. Animals play a defining role in the collection, and many of the characters identify with the animals around them. How do the animals take on meaning in the various stories?" "Gorilla Girl," "Old Dogs," and "The Fishing Dog" are good stories with which to open this discussion.