“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!