Tales Of Scrappy Michiganders In 'American Salvage'

In the second installment of our book series, "Back Story," Steve Inskeep talks with author Bonnie Jo Campbell. Her latest book, American Salvage, is a short story collection that explores the lives of people at the bottom of American society.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

This week on MORNING EDITION, we've been learning the backstories of places in the news. By that we mean the background for the headlines we've heard all year. Yesterday, author Daniyal Mueenudin told us about the gap between rich and poor in Pakistan. This morning another National Book Award finalist takes us to Michigan. Bonnie Jo Campbell lives near Kalamazoo. People in her industrial state were suffering even before the auto industry collapsed, and her book of short stories, "American Salvage," explores the lives of people at the bottom.

M: Salvage actually means a lot to people around here 'cause we - all of us scrap out metal, all of us. It's like a - just a thing you do. You save your piles of metal and then when you have a lot you go to the - one of the metal recycling centers. They've only recently started calling them metal recycling centers. They were always called, you know, salvage yards.

INSKEEP: One of Campbell's stories explores a human being who's been tossed on the scrap heap. It's called "The Inventor."

M: That story was inspired by a family story. I grew up on a creek and there's a pond right near us, and a generation before there had been a guy who was actually a friend of my uncle's who had built his own homemade scuba gear and had drowned in the pond. And so that was a story that I always knew. It was kind of a local tragedy, and so that was something that had been rattling around in my head since I was about five years old.

INSKEEP: I have to tell you, in reading that short story, there is in there a memory of that tragedy of a young man who tries this homemade scuba gear and drowns. But that is by no means the most present tragedy in this story. It's almost forgettable compared to what you create on top of it. Would you describe the main character of that story?

M: There's two main characters and one is a 13-year-old girl who's very pretty and feels her life is all out there waiting for her. And then the other character, who actually becomes more important in the story, is a man who has lost his job at the foundry and he suffers from some physical deformity and medical issues because of burns he sustained while working in the foundry. And he hits the girl with his car and he desperately wants to save the girl's life.

INSKEEP: He's got a scar on his face. He can't afford to have it medicated the right way because he's lost his job and his health insurance, and he looks so horrible that even this girl whose life depends on him is repulsed by him.

M: He's not a bad person. He does have some unattractive thoughts in the story sometimes, but he's somebody I think we can all care about.

INSKEEP: He's somebody we can all care about - why?

M: I think in our society there are people who are a little bit displaced right now. He is a guy who came from the kind of family in which people don't go to college and he never loved working at the foundry, but he felt that he had made a pact with the foundry. He felt that he was going to suffer problems and suffer even medical issues as a result of his working at the foundry, but he thought that the foundry was similarly making a deal with him that they would keep him on, that they would continue to do business and he would be a part of it. And then the foundry closed and they scrapped out all the metal that they had at the foundry, and he's on his own now.

INSKEEP: You put this so eloquently in the story that I want to read a phrase from this story. You write: His burns were a pact the foundry made with him. And that's what you mean, isn't it? He accepted the pain of an industrial job because of what he thought he was going to get from it.

M: Yeah, and people all over Michigan and all over the United States made that pact, and that work was hard. Around Michigan also we have paper companies and those people in those factories worked hard and they knew they were doing it for their families, and they were willing to do - they were willing to do it, hard and maybe a little degrading even, but they were willing to do it. And when those people had given up so much in order to accept a lifestyle that could feed their families, I think then it made even harder when they were left behind.

INSKEEP: Which is why you call the book "American Salvage." These are people who have been scrapped in some way.

M: Yeah, in some way these are people who are left behind and in some ways they are also people who are living off of what is left behind in some way, either literally because they're selling scrap metal, or because they're clinging to what is left of those old lives.

INSKEEP: Because you've set some of these stories in the past, several decades ago, you remind me that although Michigan has been very much in the news this year, because of the industrial disaster of the collapse of auto companies, that even when things were going well in Michigan there was a lot of pain.

M: Well, it's - Michigan is actually a state of - that's been in transition a long time. You know, if you think about - people came up to work in Henry Ford's factories a long time ago. People came - moved from all over the United States to get these jobs. And I don't know, Michigan's also had a little bit of a sort of survivalist element living among us all the time. And in some way it's because we're a very naturally rich place to live.

I like to think that if I had to live off the land, if something terrible happened, society collapsed, that Michigan would not be a bad place to be. And the characters, the people who are like the characters in my books, would not be bad people to be with because they are people who remember how to survive at a very basic level. I think in Michigan we've had trouble long enough that we actually have a culture of economic trouble.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by a culture of trouble?

M: I think we're accustomed - I mean I think the reason we all save scrapped metal is because we might need it. You know, if in my house I - the way I look at my modest little house, is that I think I could rent out a room if I had to. So I do like to think about the options for - you know, I like to think about how I would handle it if suddenly the economic situation was worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of "American Salvage." She's one of three writers giving us the backstory of world events this week. And tomorrow we'll get the backstory from New York. That's where writer Colum McCann's father-in-law survived the attack on the World Trade Center.

M: I kept his shoes from that day, these shoes that are covered in the dust of the World Trade Center, and this dust that we have, I think we sort of have to try to reconstitute it and try to make meaning of it.

INSKEEP: We'll hear tomorrow from the author of "Let the Great World Spin."

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