The Waters: A Novel (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

A magical, lyrical fairy tale about three generations of women live out of time on an island in a mid-Michigan swamp.  Throughout The Waters Bonnie Jo, master of rural noir, displays her deep understanding of the intricacies and inhabitants of this land, presented masterfully and tenderly through the eyes of 11 year old “Donkey”.  A wild girl so empathetic that she can speak to animals.  Betrayals, violence, births, cancer and  family secrets challenge the women whose embrace of island nature is threatened by the inevitable  inability to remain forever reclusive.

Strongly drawn women and a passionate embrace of nature make this one of those rare books that I wished would keep on going so keen was I to follow their continuing stories.  —Peter

— From Staff Favorites List


A TODAY Show #ReadWithJenna Book Club Selection • One of Oprah Daily's Most Anticipated Books of 2024 • One of the Chicago Review of Books's 12 Must-Read Books of January 2024 • Featured in Roxane Gay’s newsletter The Audacity • One of the Christian Science Monitor's Best Books of January

"If you loved Where the Crawdads Sing, you're going to love, and I'm saying love, our first read of 2024." —Jenna Bush Hager, TODAY Show

A master of rural noir returns with a fierce, mesmerizing novel about exceptional women and the soul of a small town.

On an island in the Great Massasauga Swamp—an area known as “The Waters” to the residents of nearby Whiteheart, Michigan—herbalist and eccentric Hermine “Herself” Zook has healed the local women of their ailments for generations. As stubborn as her tonics are powerful, Herself inspires reverence and fear in the people of Whiteheart, and even in her own three estranged daughters. The youngest—the beautiful, inscrutable, and lazy Rose Thorn—has left her own daughter, eleven-year-old Dorothy “Donkey” Zook, to grow up wild.

Donkey spends her days searching for truths in the lush landscape and in her math books, waiting for her wayward mother and longing for a father, unaware that family secrets, passionate love, and violent men will flood through the swamp and upend her idyllic childhood. Rage simmers below the surface of this divided community, and those on both sides of the divide have closed their doors against the enemy. The only bridge across the waters is Rose Thorn.

With a “ruthless and precise eye for the details of the physical world” (Jane Smiley, New York Times Book Review), Bonnie Jo Campbell presents an elegant antidote to the dark side of masculinity, celebrating the resilience of nature and the brutality and sweetness of rural life.

About the Author

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of six works of fiction, including American Salvage, finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Once Upon a River, a national bestseller. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, and a Pushcart Prize, she lives outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, with donkeys.

Praise For…

Bonnie Jo Campbell has quietly become one of our best writers. She brings news you haven’t heard before, and that’s why I read. Her new novel, The Waters, is written in prose strong and lyrical, and tells a story so deeply rooted in a specific place that the accumulation of details approaches the magical.

— Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s The Waters is a novel, a living myth, and a place.… Imagine a mash-up of Flannery O’Connor and the Brothers Grimm, of Angela Carter’s reimagined fairy tales and William Faulkner’s gothic sublime. And yet, The Waters is all Bonnie Jo. If you’ve read her, you know what I mean, how she sees and evokes us, and this land we inhabit, covered in mayapples and dogwood, cuntshells and quickmuck, with a masterful, tender objectivity. The Waters is no utopia. It is muddy and bloody; it swallows us whole and effervesces into fog. It is the magic we’d inhabit if we still believed in magic, the dream we’d have if we could sleep.

— Diane Seuss, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Frank: Sonnets

The Waters will suck you into its muddy gut and not let go.… A powerful, fragrant, readable, almost edible novel. In The Waters, Bonnie Jo Campbell, who understands the women and men of the no-longer-prosperous rural Midwest better than anyone, dreams up a marshy Northwoods township where factual flora and fauna, soil quality and agricultural practice, demographics and religious affiliation somehow share a long, dotted, antic boundary line with Oz and The Blue Fairy Book, with märchen, folkways, and ancient myth.

— Jaimy Gordon, National Book Award–winning author of Lord of Misrule

There are scenes of sadness and turmoil in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s superb new novel, but at its core is an abiding sense of wonder. We encounter that wonder in Campbell’s minute attentive-ness to her rural Michigan landscape as well as to her understanding of the complexities of the human heart. Nevertheless, for all the novel’s vividness, The Waters has an ethereal quality that we enter as if into a waking dream, and even after we turn the last page, we remain under its spell, enchanted

— Ron Rash, author of Serena

On a swampy island in Michigan, an outcast herbalist and her granddaughter contend with traumatic family secrets and an absent mother in this vividly drawn corner of rural America.
— New York Times Book Review

For Campbell, the dose of pixie dust is thoroughly diluted in a stream of gritty reality; her style never leaves the loamy land behind[.] Once you get thoroughly sunk into the story, you’ll resent ever having to leave this matriarchal family that insists on preserving its own peculiar ways in a world determined to move on…Campbell’s most astonishing feat is bringing The Waters to a climax that abandons the fantasy of her “once upon a time” opening and yet eventually delivers us to a place of real magic we never could have anticipated.

— Ron Charles - Washington Post Book Review

Campbell has been exploring hardship, especially the hardships that independent and exploratory women have to work through, for most of her writing career. She knows that unexpected misfortunes have to be put up with, and the question is always whether to do it your own way or to give in to the people around you and embark on a life you do not want…The Waters is a thought-provoking and readable exploration of eccentricity and of all different kinds of love—familial love, romantic love, love of knowledge, love of animals and love of one’s own environment, even when it is a difficult place to live.

— Jane Smiley - Los Angeles Times Book Review

Campbell, who lives outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, is one of American fiction’s leading voices about rural life: the struggle to make a living, the beauty of the wild environment, the thorny and sometimes violent relationships between men and women, and the economic and industrial pressures that threaten everything…filled with vivid descriptions of the diverse flora of this wetlands, The Waters is a realistic novel with a strong thread of fairy tale running through it[.] The Waters builds toward an incredible climactic episode that addresses the great divide running through this imperiled community.

— Jim Higgins - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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[.] 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.
— Reading the West

With its detailed portrayal of nature and its mystical elements, The Waters paints a vivid picture of life in a rural area.

— Julie Hinds - Detroit Free Press

This is a verdant, gripping, and clarion saga of home, family, and womanhood, of meaningful work and metamorphosis, of poisons and antidotes, and the urgent need for us to heal and sustain the imperiled living world that heals and sustains us.
— Donna Seaman - Booklist (starred review)

With an electrifying vocabulary all its own (here, cigarettes are coffin nails, and plant names roll off the tongue with ease), The Waters is a novel that is rife with enchantments—a classic in the making, introducing generations of heroines who are destined to be beloved.

— Michelle Schingler - Foreward (starred review)

…one of the most important voices in American fiction. 
— Rebecca Jones Schinski - Book Riot

Bonnie Jo Campbell is one of the chief practitioners of Midwestern Gothic, and the National Book Award finalist’s first novel in a dozen years is reason to rejoice. The Waters is an indelible portrait of rural Michigan and the women tough enough to live there, with writing so evocative it practically sprouts in your hands. Lush, brackish, and bracing, The Waters is not so much read as steeped in.

— The Christian Science Monitor

I especially loved all the descriptive details…[The Waters] is a wonderful winter read that has you inspired for warmer springtime weather ahead.

— Victoria Giardina - New York Post

Captivating…A novel that’s rife with enchantments—a classic in the making, introducing generations of heroines who are destined to be beloved.
— Michelle Anne Schingler - Foreword Reviews

Product Details
ISBN: 9780393248432
ISBN-10: 0393248437
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: January 9th, 2024
Pages: 400
Language: English