National Short Story Month: My Favorite Stories Continued

To continue my list of my favorite short stories, I offer up “The Trespasser” by Bonnie Jo Campbell, from her collection American Salvage, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

“The Trespasser” is a haunting short story (very short, at about three pages) that details the first moments when a family arrives at their river cabin for vacation, only to find that it has been inhabited by trespassers who used the cabin to make meth. The story is told with by roaming omniscient narrator who describes the house, the family’s reaction, and most importantly, the mindset of the trespasser, a teenage girl who sneaks out of the house as the family arrives.

“The Trespasser” is intriguing in its form because it uses objects to guide the narrative, propelling it forward by taking the reader (and the family) from room to room, giving us insight into the thoughts, behaviors, and practices of someone high on meth. Nothing in the house has been stolen, but many things have been moved, rearranged:

In the center of the master bed sits an ancient nest of twigs containing pale blue robins’ eggs (collected and blown by a great-grandmother), which forms a nativity scene with a pair of wooden dolls. A dozen old fashioned clothespins are laid out side-by-side across the foot of the bed like children at a reunion lining up for the group photo.

The story eventually boils down to the difference between the teenage daughter in the family that owns the cabin, and the teenage trespasser, a girl who has had a drastically different life from that of the daughter. During her time in the cabin, the trespasser read the daughter’s diary, read about her normal teenage life and frustrations over boys and sports. The difference between them is stark and sad:

The daughter had made it more than thirteen years without having spent a night with her dresser pushed up against her bedroom door to keep her mother’s friends out. Nobody has ever burned her face with a cigarette, and she has never burned her own arms with cigarettes just to remember how terrible it feels. The swimming daughter has never tried to shoot up with a broken needle, never spent time in a juvenile home or in the filthy bathroom of an abandoned basement apartment, has never shaken uncontrollably in the backseat of a car all night long. The daughter has never broken a window to crawl into somebody else’s place, has never needed something so badly that she would do anything for three men, strangers, to get it.

This difference between the two – the daughter, who has been kept safe and healthy, and the trespasser, who has never been safe – creates a transformation not for the trespasser, but for the daughter, who happens upon the aftermath of the trespasser’s time in the house.

The story sounds sad, and it is. But it is also a remarkably well-told story. It’s another story that really shouldn’t work. The crisis action happens off-screen and is hinted at in the story. The characters lack names, a throw-back to the Naturalistic period of American literature when characters were named by their identifying characteristics – the cowboy, the journalist, etc. Characters were seen as people to whom nature was flatly indifferent, and to identify them with names given to them at birth by parents would have humanized them more than would be suitable when Nature is in charge of things.

Nature’s indifference is not at play in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story, but the indifference, or perhaps unfairness, of life is. Campbell never makes her characters into victims; they all make decisions, destructive or otherwise. But the line that is drawn to compare the daughter and the trespasser paints a picture of two very different teenage girls, and that comparison illustrates the unjust deck of cards that has been dealt to the trespasser.

The story’s descriptions and unique narration style make it an interesting story to consider in literature classes. When I taught it to my ENG 112 class, students were both horrified by the ending of the story as well as being interested in the ways that objects run the story. Several of them listed it as their favorite story we read during the semester when they wrote their final reflection essay.

As ever, I’d love to hear about your favorite stories! Stay tuned for more of mine!

For More of Dana’s Writing on Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Work

Battle wounds and puffball mushrooms:  a conversation with bonnie jo campbell

moving objects:  transformation as crisis action in bonnie jo campbell’s “The trespasser”


6 thoughts on “National Short Story Month: My Favorite Stories Continued

  1. I’m reading American Salvage for the third time and I have to agree with your choosing “The Trespasser.” I also just reread James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” for the umpteenth time and I’d offer that as one of the greatest short stories ever. I also highly recommend Lauren Groff a new favorite writer I just discovered. I love her collection, “Delicate Edible Birds” and I think “Majorette” from that collection is awesome and a rare example of a short story that is upbeat. Short stories are definitely my preference over novels. A few years ago, Antonya Nelson wrote an essay with a concise and articulate argument about why novels are more popular than short stories, although Nelson prefers short stories, too. Feel free to e-mail me at keithhood@mac.com if you’d like to read the essay.

    1. Excellent! I’ve not heard of Lauren Groff; what kind of stories does she write? Antonya Nelson is also one of my fav short story writers (and in fact, one of her stories will be featured as a part of this series later this week!).

      1. I’d just say that Groff writes good short stories. She’s just a good writer period. I first spotted her collection “Delicate Edible Birds” while doing a residency at Ragdale. I googled her and came across a great story by her in The Common lit mag ( http://www.thecommononline.org/press ). After that, I picked up a copy of “Delicate Edible Birds” and loved it. She’s also a novelist and I read her novel “The Monsters of Templeton” after I read her collection. I enjoyed “The Monsters of Templeton” quite a bit and now I’m about to read her second novel “Arcadia.” Also, another Bonnie Jo story I really like is “Storm Warning” but then again I may be biased because I used to edit a lit journal and I accepted “Storm Warning for publication in our journal way back when.

  2. I taught the book at a Michigan University, and this was my students’ favorite story. they also liked “The Yard Man” and “Bringing Belle Home,” but “The Trespasser” took first place.

    1. I think it’s a great, really substantial story packed into a short space, which is great for teaching to intro students (as mine were). Thanks for reading!

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