“Q Road (or “Queer Road,“ as the locals in the story call it) is the well-crafted first novel from Kalamazoo-based Campbell, who has won a Pushcart Prize, as well as the 1998 Associated Writing Programs Award in Short Fiction for her collection, “Women & Other Animals.“
Campbell herself seems to be as engaging a character as those she creates and defies you not to care about. She is six- feet tall, drives a 1985 Chevy pick-up truck with a rebuilt 350 small-block engine, and studies Kouburyu karate and kobudo, and pulls and kills garlic mustard, “an invasive species of weed which is enemy to native woodlands“ in her spare time, when she is not writing. Before that, she traveled with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, led bicycle tours in Eastern Europe, Russia, the Baltics, and the Balkans, and was a math scholar.
When “Q Road“ was released this past September, the impressive writing community established in Kalamazoo cheered Campbells latest effort, and Kraftbrau Brewery in the college town created a specialty beer, Q Brew, to celebrate the occasion. Part of the appeal of the new book was its setting - Kalamazoo County itself. The rest of the acclaim and hoopla, deservedly so, centers around the rich cast of characters in this moral-laden, though highly-readable tale.
In the opening pages, Campbell peps the reader with an image-drenched description of the landscape and land that will figure so significantly in the story:
“At the eastern edge of Kalamazoo County, autumn woolly bear caterpillars hump across Queer Road to get to the fields and windbreaks of George Harland‘s rich river valley land. With their bellies full of dandelion greens and native plantains, these orange-and-black-banded woolly bears travel at about four feet per minute, in search of niches where they can spend the winter. Near the oldest barn in Greenland Township, many of them settle in and around a decaying stone foundation overgrown with poison ivy vines. It is land they have occupied for centuries, this tribe of caterpillars, since long before George Harland‘s great-great-great-grandfather bought it from the federal land office for a dollar and a quarter an acre.
More than a century and a half after that purchase, on October 9, 1999, David Retakker pedaled his rusting BMX bike south along Queer Road, with the Harland property on his right and the sun rising over Whitby‘s pig farm on his left. David, twelve years old, hungry, and wheezy from asthma, didn‘t mind the pig stink, but he couldn‘t understand why all the caterpillars wanted to cross the road... as David got closer, he made out Rachel Crane, standing in front of her produce tables with her arms crossed and her rifle hanging over her shoulder on a sling. Rachel was seventeen, only five years older than David, but she was always looking out for him, which was okay. Still, she was staring so intently at the pavement that she didn‘t seem to notice his approach, and he told himself he might even sneak past. That would be a feat, he thought, to sneak right past her, first thing in the morning.
Rachel‘s roadside tables were set up in front of George‘s old two-story house, and just to the side was parked a utility wagon piled with dozens of pumpkins. The tables were heavy with winter squash, tomatoes, a few melons, bushel baskets of striped and spotted gourds, and on the ground sat five-gallon buckets of Brussels sprout spears... Rachel‘s gardening enterprise didn‘t much appeal to David, because he wanted to work in fields of corn, oats, and soybeans the way George did. Those grains went into bread and breakfast cereal, food that could fill a person up.
As he got closer, he studied Rachel‘s black hair and her face, which appeared to glow orange in the light coming from the east. Whenever she was standing somewhere, you got the idea that she‘d already been there a long time and it would take a lot to move her. He used to want to be just like Rachel, but a couple years ago she‘d swelled dangerously, becoming thick with breasts and hips, and since then he‘d tried to keep some distance between them. When she looked up from the road this morning, her dark eyes sent a jolt of electricity through him, and he jerked his handlebars and veered straight at her. Rachel jumped out of the way and David careened into the shallow ditch in front of the stacked cantaloupes.“
Along with Rachel and David, her young asthmatic companion who longs for any sort of consistent attention, the inhabitants of the Q Road area include a sixth-generation farmer now married to Rachel, a scripture-quoting bartender, a tabloid-reading agoraphobe, and a philandering window salesman. They all have more in common than it initially seems, something that is reinforced one life-changing October afternoon when the connection that some of them share is dramatically transformed, but, as always, stays tethered to the land. The pace moves steadily and tensions build until the final resolutions, which are credible and satisfying, are reached.
Campbell‘s novel bursts with energy and the sense of roots - of all sorts - readying themselves for transformation. One senses that Campbell has drawn from the deep well of her own relationships with land and Mother Nature, and from that comes a wicked sense of humor and pointed observations delivered with gusto. Her characters provide fresh and substantive insights into a number of topics, from generational farming and May-December relationships to family traditions and the withering away of the rural lifestyle so long a part of the fabric of this country. The deeper they dig, no pun intended, the more revelatory they become, all of which makes for a bountiful harvest for the reader.