Part 3 of “‘Ruin Porn’ to Rust Belt beauty: her place in resurrecting the American Dream in the Belt,” and a 212-page prize

Kristen Hunninen, Senior Apprentice, Braddock Farms, PA
Photo by Howard Hsu, from his 2014 rust belt collection. Subject: “Kristen Hunninen, Senior Apprentice at Braddock Farms, an urban farm in the shadow of a working steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania.”

Essay continued from Part 2:

Salvage. To reclaim, recoup. In an often very subtle way, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michigan author of 2009 story collection American Salvage (finalist for the National Book Award) saves her characters—and us in the reading. Her characters and the predicaments in which they find themselves are not pretty; yet, Campbell provides a modicum of redemption—the American Dream renewed—I’m looking for in the writing of the Rust Belt.

Campbell’s stories center on everyday people with everyday struggles—from farmers to salvage yard workers, meth addicts to the unemployed—striving to make do with the hand they’ve been dealt in the tough Michigan landscape. These stories are what Ruin Porn could do more of: show us the despairing scene and then populate it with characters to care about.

One of Campbell’s young characters, a 14-year old girl (whose story Campbell expands on for her gem of a novel, Once Upon a River), encapsulates the heart of Campbell’s fiction. In “Family Reunion,” the reader understands that the girl will take revenge by shooting the uncle who violated her. One sentence speaks volumes:

She had to do this thing for herself; nobody is going to do it for her.

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