The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Set in the Great Massasuaga Swamp of northern Michigan this tale of five women who are both at odds with each other and inextricably bonded by family blood is a compelling read that will satisfy readers of literary fiction and women’s issues as well as contemporary social problems.

The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell
W. W. Norton & Co.
Hardcover | $30
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If you enjoy reading about strong, independent, purposeful women who thrive in the face of adversity and in spite of serious flaws, both personal and professional, this is a book for you. Campbell has imagined a family of women who vary in as many ways as it is possible to imagine and still have profound unbreakable bonds. This imagination is palpable: these are entirely believable characters with whom the reader will surely identify. Using an obvious skill for writing dialogue and constructing situations she has given us a wholly engaging story of struggle and sorrow, of joy and triumph.


Set in the backcountry of Michigan, deep in the Great Massasuaga Swamp, known to the locals as “The Waters”, Hermine Zook (known to all as “Herself”), a powerful and enigmatic woman has concocted natural remedies for the region for decades in the tradition of her ancestors. Half healer and half witch, according to the residents of Whiteheart, the nearest town, she reigns over a family cobbled together from miracle and sin. Primrose, the eldest, is an escapee from this life, living in California and providing legal help to the downtrodden. Molly, the middle daughter has become a nurse in the modern western medical mold, working at a local clinic administering the FDA-approved therapies and drugs. Rose Thorn, the youngest is a wild child. She shuns hard work, charms everyone in mystical ways with her beauty and naturally sunny disposition. Add to the mix Dorothy, Rose’s daughter born of a violent encounter. Dorothy, known as “Donkey” is a tall, gangly girl who, in spite of not having been schooled formally is a mathematical prodigy and her thoughts and speech are peppered with numerical references and theorems. The dynamic between these five disparate characters is, understandably, complex, bearing both love and hatred leavened by an enduring bond of responsibility to humankind. Each in her way is working hard to make the world a better place.


Writing with a remarkably skillful pen, the author produces a genuine voice, believable dialogue and engaging characters that propel this story. Involving, as it does, small-town prejudices and fears, traditional herbal and natural lore, illicit and unrequited love, family loyalty, genuine danger and some suspenseful action the narrative never lags. From lurking vengeful locals with firearms to deadly snakes protected by federal law, this tale moves irresistibly to an end that fulfills the promise of the rest of the book. It also addresses some trenchant current issues that appear in the news daily but are not, in fact new, but age-old problems that continue to baffle those with prospective solutions. It is a muscular and meaningful book that should be great book group material.