Q Road

Q Road

4.3 7
by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Brian Rea, Michael Kelley, John Fulbrook, Kyoko Watanabe

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Combining the modern-farm-life realities of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres with the quirky humor and eccentric characters of Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Q Road is a charming debut from Bonnie Jo Campbell.

Greenland Township, Michigan: On the same acres where farmers once displaced Potawatomi Indians, suburban developers now


Combining the modern-farm-life realities of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres with the quirky humor and eccentric characters of Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Q Road is a charming debut from Bonnie Jo Campbell.

Greenland Township, Michigan: On the same acres where farmers once displaced Potawatomi Indians, suburban developers now supplant farmers and prefab homes spring up in last year's cornfields. All along Q Road—or “Queer Road,” as the locals call it—the old, rural life collides weirdly with the new.

With a cast of lovingly rendered eccentrics and a powerful sense of place, Q Road is a lively tale of nature and human desire that alters the landscape of contemporary fiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Tony Earley Writing with extraordinary empathy and grace...Campbell raises to our ears a sound not heard often enough: the heartrending cry of the human heart in all its flawed complexity.

Denver Rocky Mountain News Campbell's spare, evocative prose is pure artistry, but her unusual characters and her unique way of linking the continuity of time with the land's inhabitants prove her a writer to watch.

Los Angeles Times The broad tableau of aluminum siding versus pig manure is rendered here with delicate, exacting strokes.

Publishers Weekly A thoughtful, well-paced, deeply moral (though not moralizing) novel full of hard lessons and the wisdom gained from them across generations.

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Bonnie Jo Campbell, the multifaceted author of Q Road, has scaled the Swiss Alps on a bike, traveled with the circus, and led adventure tours through Russia. Now, in her heartwarming and humorous first novel, she shares carefully gleaned insights into human nature through the lives of the unconventional residents of Kalamazoo County, Michigan.

Life on the eponymous Q Road revolves around George Harland and his working farm. An industrious man with a genuine soul, George fears he will lose the land that his been in his family for generations, like the long-banished Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the homestead now entrusted to him. His young bride, Rachel, feels an almost overwhelming connection to her husband and the land yet is hiding dark secrets from her past. But it is the couple's unlikely friendship with a neglected neighborhood boy that sparks a tragic event serving as a catalyst for the entire community.

In her lucidly written novel, Campbell's close-knit cast is held together by a tumultuous historical thread. This long and tangled skein encompasses a young girl's suicide, a struggling community whose members depend on each other for survival, a schoolteacher ruthlessly cast from her home, and a tornado that nearly destroys them all. Much like the wooly bear caterpillars that open the novel by crossing a road in the process of transformation, the people of Q Road are heading for a day that will change the future for them all. (Fall 2002 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
A farm in rural Kalamazoo County, Mich., provides the backdrop for Campbell's appealing first novel, a May-December love story augmented by suspense, secrets and Native American mysticism. Rachel Crane, a homely, foul-mouthed teenager, lives on a houseboat with her reclusive mother, Margo. They are tenants of George Harland, whose wife abandoned him to maintain his declining farm alone. Rachel is as antisocial as her mother: her one friend is David Retakker, a young asthmatic who idolizes George. Her sexuality is awakened by George's reprobate younger brother, Johnny, but when Margo catches them together, she shoots him dead, then disappears without a trace. George becomes irresistibly drawn to the strange girl and asks her to marry him; she accepts, but just so she can inherit "his damned land," to which she feels entitled because of her Native American ancestry. Only in an extended climax, when David's life is imperiled, does Rachel begin to allow herself to feel genuine love for anything but the land. The cast of well-developed supporting characters includes April May Rathburn, an old woman with some dark secrets; her nephew, Tom Parks, a cop who's suspicious of Margo's and Johnny's disappearances; and Milton Taylor, the born-again owner of the Barn Grill. Coincidence and synchronicity among land, animals, humans and weather are cards Campbell (Women and Other Animals) plays too often; likewise, descriptions of Rachel's profound connection to the earth (the girl all but sprouts roots) become tiresome. However, it would take more than that to spoil this thoughtful, well-paced, deeply moral (though not moralizing) novel full of hard lessons and the wisdom gained from them across generations. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Winner of the 1998 Associated Writing Programs Award in Short Fiction, Campbell launches her career as novelist with this account of "Q Road," where old-time farmers meet grasping suburbanites head on. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Social change threatens the longtime residents of Kalamazoo County, Michigan, but the verities of land and love endure-in this dark but finally hopeful debut. The action covers a single day, October 9, 1999, with the characters' memories going back to 1930s, when a tornado racked the area after a local schoolteacher was exiled for sleeping with a hired hand; and, farther, to the 1830s, when white homesteaders began to push the Potawatomi Indians off their native terrain. Rachel Crane, 17, is recently married to 50-year-old George Harland-because she wants his land, she tells herself, though we sense that she reciprocates at least a little of George's deep yearning for her. Asthmatic 12-year-old David Retakker idolizes George, who's holding on as a farmer while his neighbors sell out to developers. Subdivisions are springing up, peopled by urban transplants who overtax police officer Tom Parks with complaints about burglar alarms set off by raccoons and about the smell of pig manure. The omniscient narrator doesn't romanticize the way of life these interlopers are destroying: we see drunkenness, bigotry, and cruelty among the locals as well as neuroses and ignorance among the new arrivals. This is a harsh, unforgiving world: when David accidentally sets fire to George's barn, the narrator informs us, "There was no reason to think that the fire . . . would give a damn about the flesh and bones of one small boy, even if [he] could have kept at bay for another generation the builders and real estate agents who wanted to divide this wide fertile tract into unproductive rectangles and smother it with foundations for homes, concrete driveways, and choking lawns." But David does survive,provisionally, and the author has so powerfully conveyed her protagonists' grit and determination that we close the novel feeling they may yet prevail. Blunt and bleak, but the vivid, varied cast and palpable sense of connection to the soil give it a stern grandeur.

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Chapter One

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. There must be millions of them, David thought, for already hundreds lay flattened or stunned or dead alongside, and more kept coming. He'd seen woolly bears before, but he couldn't remember if it had been spring or fall, and surely they were never as plentiful as this. David steered with one hand; the other he rested on his knee, with the index finger folded in a way that mimicked amputation at the lower knuckle, so he could pretend he had the same injury as George Harland.

Off to David's left, dozens of rust-colored Duroc hogs appeared no bigger than caterpillars as they snuffled in the grass and mud behind long, low whitewashed structures. David imagined them chopped into hams, bacon, and pork steaks, smoked and sizzling for breakfast in cast-iron pans. Beyond the soybean field on his right rose the tall trees surrounding the Harland house and outbuildings, and 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. Hungry as he was, David could turn down Brussels sprouts; and the big, flesh-colored butternut squashes gave him the creeps, made him think of a pile of misshapen mutant bodies without eyes or mouths or limbs. 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. His bike tipped over sideways onto him.

"Are you okay?" Rachel said.

"I'm okay." David stood up and righted his bicycle.

"Well, you sure as hell don't know how to steer."

"I lost my balance."

"Well, then use both hands when you ride."

David checked his index finger, which was still not severed at the knuckle, and rolled his bike backward until he was beside her.

"Damn it," Rachel said, "you just backed up over that woolly bear."


"What did that woolly bear ever do to you?"

"There's so many I can't help it," David said. "And besides, you kill lots of things."

Rachel threw up her arms and yelled, "What's the hurry? Next year you can all fly across the damn road."


"I was talking to the woolly bears." Rachel adjusted her rifle strap. "I watched this woolly bear crawl all the way from the other side of the road, and then you came along and smashed it."

David looked down at the pavement to where Rachel pointed out a caterpillar flattened beside a dark smear of guts. To avoid feeling bad about it, David looked up, to the bright ceiling of sycamore leaves, each as big as a person's face, extending across the driveway to the edge of the pasture. David glanced up the driveway, tracing its path to the silos of corrugated tin, the big wooden stock barn, and beyond to the silver and red pole barns where George kept his tractors, balers, and combines. David didn't see George's truck.

Beside the driveway, just beyond the reach of the branches, stood a pony, a donkey, and a long-haired llama, side by side, pushing against the barbed wire in places where they'd already mashed the barbs down with their chests. David considered going over and petting the animals, but then he wondered if his bedroom clock at home might have been slow and if he might already be late. He'd woken up repeatedly during the night worrying about the time. And now George's truck was nowhere around; maybe George was already down there waiting for him.

"You don't know what time it is, do you?"

"Why are you in such a damn hurry?" Rachel said.

David knew Rachel worked hard to put swear words in most every sentence; she'd told him that plain talk, without swearing, was weak and invited argument. And he could see you had to keep in practice with swearing, even when you didn't feel like it.

"I'm helping George put a wagonload of straw in the barn," David said. "Didn't he tell you?"

"Maybe I don't hang on every damn word out of his mouth like some people."

"So how come you married him then?" David's raspy breathing was painful to hear this morning.

"If you don't know by now why I married him," she said, "then it's none of your damn business. You're not out of your medication again, are you?"

As David fumbled with the white plastic tube from his pocket, Rachel looked away and stacked some pumpkin gourds. Her neighbor Milton Taylor had been right about planting these — at a dollar each, the rutabaga-sized pumpkins sold by the dozens — but Rachel found herself annoyed at their smallness this morning. It seemed wrong to raise vegetables that didn't have a chance at growing to normal size. And besides, you couldn't eat them. She'd gutted one and cooked it, just to see, and she found the paltry bit of meat gritty and flavorless.

After David put his inhaler away, Rachel said, "Your ma didn't get any food for breakfast, did she?"

He shrugged.

"No wonder you're running off the road," Rachel said. "Do you want an apple?"

"I guess I'd take an apple."

Rachel went to the far end of her tables and tipped up an empty bushel basket. "The damn deer chewed through my chicken wire. Let me get some apples from the barn."

"I don't want to be late for meeting George."

"Fine, then get the hell out of here."

Neither of them moved or said anything until David shrugged again. Some nights when David slipped out of his house on P Road, he trekked the half-mile shortcut trail over here, and tried to sneak up on Rachel in her garden. He liked to study her from as close as he could, to try to understand why George couldn't live without her, and it was a lot easier to look at her when she wasn't looking back. Sitting in the dark she seemed muscular like Martini the pony, but she could also move as stealthily as Gray Cat. The way she shot practically everything that came into her garden, she was no one to complain about other people killing anything. David would creep as quietly as he could those nights, but a hundred feet away she'd hear his footsteps, his noisy breathing, or his stomach rumbling, and she'd yell, "David, what the hell are you doing out here?" and he'd yell back, "Nothing," and come out of hiding. Then she'd make him sit still while she waited for an animal or whispered a story about the Indian she called Corn Girl or explained how a skunk would roll a woolly bear on the ground until all its bristles came out before eating it. Other people said Rachel didn't talk much, but she made David listen to advice about growing tomatoes and skinning muskrats and saving money in coffee cans to buy land, even though David had no interest in tomatoes or muskrats. He didn't even want to own land; he just wanted to drive tractors and combines and pull hay balers and cultivators across George's hundreds of acres.

"What happened to the window?" David pointed at the broken pane in the lower left corner of the big window facing the road. He wore a long-sleeved T-shirt, but Rachel thought he probably should have a jacket on, too.

Rachel said, "George's stupid-ass nephew threw a pumpkin at the house in the middle of the night."

"How do you know it was Todd?"

"I heard his hooligan voice."

"Are you going to track him down and shoot him?" David figured it must feel great to launch a pumpkin through the air like a missile and to hear the crash that meant you'd struck your target.

"No, I'm not going to shoot him. I don't shoot people."

"You shot at me."

She stared at him. The memory of almost killing David three years ago could still make Rachel stop breathing. "You know that was an accident. I thought you were a coyote." Even in the dark, though, she should have seen those bright eyes, that freckled face. "I can't believe you keep bringing that up."

David said, "Maybe you'll get mad and think Todd's a coyote."

"First of all, I don't shoot coyotes anymore," Rachel said. "They eat the woodchucks that eat my garden. And anyways, Todd looks more like a giant rat than a coyote."

David shrugged again. Actually he was glad Rachel had tried to shoot him, because she'd been nice to him ever since. She wasn't nice to anybody else as far as David could tell, not even George. Even now, six weeks after she'd married George, Rachel didn't seem to realize how lucky she was that she'd get to live here with George forever.

"Now, why don't you wait one goddamn minute and I'll get you some apples out of the barn."

"I've got to go." David jumped on his bike and pedaled south. This was the first time George had ever asked him to stack hay in the barn, and David needed to do everything right. George's nephew Todd had been working for him over the summer, but he'd become unreliable, not showing up when he said he would, and often doing a lousy job if George wasn't watching him. George'd had a talk with Todd yesterday, which was maybe why that window ended up busted. David stood up on his pedals.

The donkey, the llama, and Martini the spotted pony all stamped their feet and followed the bicycle along the fence line, then returned to the pasture corner to watch Rachel, in anticipation of getting oats.

"Damn stupid kid." Rachel fought the desire to shout something after him about being careful or coming back to eat later. Even though David's mother, Sally, didn't pay George any rent to live in that house over on P Road, she couldn't be bothered to feed her kid. Rachel thought that woman seriously needed her ass kicked.

Some of the people in Greenland Township figured Rachel herself had had it tough growing up. She didn't see it that way. While her own mother might have been eccentric, while she might have lost her mind in the end, she'd at least taught Rachel how to feed herself. Until Margo Crane disappeared three years ago, the woman had wrenched a living out of the local farmland by hunting and trapping, and she'd taught her daughter plenty about getting by. Rachel had lived much of her seventeen years out-of-doors, which was why she knew so much about the wild creatures of this place, for instance that these woolly bear caterpillars were the larvae of the dusty white Isabella moths and that they would not spin cocoons to protect themselves during the winter but would instead curl beneath stacked firewood or patches of bark or decaying wooden rowboats to await the winter. Their bodies were somehow able to endure the freeze, and in spring, they survived the thaw. And only after all that miraculous survival did a woolly bear build its cocoon and begin its transformation.

Crazy hermit mother aside, even just growing up with a face like Rachel's might seem to some like tough luck. Such a face might have been too much for a more self-conscious girl to bear, but Rachel refused to take it as a hardship. Most folks would not say she was ugly, exactly, but nobody would honestly call her pretty; the mystery of her face was that while no individual aspect was freakish, the striking sum of her features demanded a person stop and stare, and then, after dragging his eyes away, look back for confirmation. And despite all that looking, the looker would probably be at a loss to describe the face to anyone later. Technically speaking, Rachel's was a broad face with big cheekbones and a small chin, giving, straight on, the illusion of being round, and although her skin was not pale, the illusion of roundness fed into a suggestion of whiteness, especially in contrast to her long, dark hair, which she remembered to brush about once every three days. As with the bald faces of certain cattle breeds, as with the china-doll visage of the white-breasted nuthatch, when you got close, Rachel's face seemed to spill and stretch over its edges, continuing into her neck and hairline. Her close-set eyes were always a little bloodshot, and though she didn't much like talking, she never hesitated to make the kind of steady eye contact people found disconcerting. Other kids had been confused by her gaze, but Rachel had dropped out of school a year and a half ago, and the only kid she cared anything about now was David.

Rachel watched David's puny figure grow smaller and finally disappear behind roadside walnut trees. She would swear David had scarcely grown in the three years she'd known him. She focused on another woolly bear, a scrappy one, more orange than black, which had ventured out at a good pace from Elaine Shore's asphalt driveway across the road. Rachel told herself that this fast little guy was destined to make it, but when a pickup truck belonging to one of the Whitbys rattled toward her from the north she just had to stop looking. Damn those caterpillars, Rachel thought as she arranged a bushel basket with every variety of gourd showing, damn them for not having a sense of self-preservation. Damn them for their tiny brains, their subservience to nature. Damn their broken bodies strewn about like overripe mulberries. The caterpillars were stupid like a lot of people around here, picking up and leaving without even realizing where they were to start with. Rachel knew exactly where she was, and she planned to stay and occupy George Harland's acres — more land than she could see from any one place on that land — for as long as she lived and breathed. She didn't know about David, but when she died, she intended to be buried right here in this dark, rich soil.

Copyright © 2002 by by Bonnie Jo Campbel

Meet the Author

Bonnie Jo Campbell has won a Pushcart Prize, as well as the Associated Writing Programs Award in short fiction for her story collection, Women and Other Animals. She lives a few miles from where she was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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Q Road 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
english_teacher_39yrs More than 1 year ago
I don't know why everyone is saying this is a great read then giving it only four stars. Campbell is an engaging writer....she gives us characters so real that you can smell them and hear them breathe. If you love Anne Tyler like I do, you'll love love love Bonnie Jo Campbell. I'm going to go back now and read her other books. So fun to find a writer you adore!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Q Road was a novel that will never lose ones attention. A new, fasinating detail is always being added. First, Margo, Rachel's mom, shoots and kills a man she is having sexual relations with and at the same time, shoots her own daughter in the arm. Then, David burns down the most important building to both him and George, from a silly mistake. The characters go through several crazy, ironic problems until the book finally ends. I was caught up in Q Road, as soon as it began. I suggest this piece of reading to anyone. It was a great book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Against the backdrop of a rural town undergoing a metamorphosis -- farmlands being sold off to developers who come in and erect their prefab homes and lay their asphalt driveways -- the events of one catastrophic October afternoon cause all involved to take pause and work to regain their footing. Those events bring a new clarity to the vision of the town's people, and life begins to make a certain kind of sense. This is truly a life-affirming read. Do NOT miss Q Road.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I foud this novel profound in the sense of become a part of the character's life and the rural life style they inhabit. This book place you in a place where life is quiet, hardwork, and a strong sense of communty. When I read this book I couldn't put it down because it had a easy flow to it that made a person lose the sense of time. I recommeded for a quiet weekend read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Three people want to avoid urban sprawl from taking thier farm. A farm that has been owned by the same family for generations. Still they come nose to nose with the local urbanites that want the country fantasy, but certainly not the smells. Quirky characters and a great rural america setting is this books strength. I highly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked this book because of the way in which the bonds of community--and the ways in which they are drawn tight and loosened-- are explored in rare detail and lucidity. Because of this, the story is compelling, although the pace of the characters' lives--residents of rural West Michigan all--is a substantial change from what I'm accustomed to these days. One criticism I might have is similar to that in the review on the main page; the characters' bonds with the land could have been developed in other ways besides frequent references. Overall, though, Q Road is full of insight and compassion, and I recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
First off, I've lived in the area in which the book is set, albeit in the city of Kalamazoo proper, and I love it, and it's a joy to see it portrayed so well. I didn't just enjoy the book because I get off on seeing place names I recognize, though. The characters and plot are compelling and memorable, particularly Rachel. The observations of daily life are lucid and compassionate, and sneak up on the reader for those little bursts of insight that are my favorite thing about reading a good book. The writing style takes a little getting used to although is rewarding in the end--each sentence is clear but takes a little more chewing and digesting than I'm used to. The only criticism I might have echoes the one from the main page--the mystic links between people and land get a bit overdone after a while. I recommend this book. It reminded me that bonds between people, no matter how formed, are crucial to have and tend carefully--something that's easy to forget.