January 13: “Children of Transylvania, 1983” by Bonnie Jo Campbell

One of my early go-to bits on this blog has been me discussing what I think the story du jour is going to be about before reading it; I see a title, take a silly guess, and relay it to you, blog readers, in an attempt at humor. I wondered if “Bobcat” was going to be from a bobcat’s point of view, a lot of meowing and growling. “Summer of Mopeds” sounded like it might be about this really fantastic summer, kids riding mopeds around, just living life, sans pedaling. For today’s Story366 post, I have to admit, I chose the story just for that reason, because I could have fun speculating about what happens. The object of that fun? “Children of Transylvania, 1983” by Bonnie Jo Campbell, from her 2015 collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

I’ll note that I mean no offense when I make these predictions. It’s all in good fun, a way to keep 366 blog posts moving, plus help me find my voice—I’m new to this. Since I don’t spend too much time on this approach (until right now), I don’t think it takes away from my project, or more importantly, the story. When I make my little jokes, it’s not because I don’t take the author, their work, or stories seriously.

That said, “Children of Transylvania, 1983” incites so much in me, I can’t resist. It was easy to imagine Muppet Babies-like monsters, an Our Gang-like group of kids scuffling around a neighborhood, Dracula’s castle the big house at the end of the block. Drac, Jr., would running down the street, pushing a hoop with a stick. Little Frankenstein’s Monster leans against a fence with a slingshot in his back pocket. Wolfpup chases down the ice cream truck. Little Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster fights a duel fight, against arranged marriages and the legal marrying age. Add in 1983, and they’d be bopping to Cyndi Lauper, reenacting Joe Piscopo skits from Saturday Night Live, and passing out Mondale ’84 bumper stickers for the neighborhood liberal, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. This story was going to be awesome!

And it is, but not because of all that nonsense. Campbell—a colleague of mine during her visiting writer gig at Bowling Green a million years ago—is reliably great as a short story writer, beginning with her AWP Prize-winning collection Women and Other Animals, leading to National Book Award finalist American Salvage, all the way up to this new book (with others in-between). Campbell (I used to call her “Bons,” which did not catch on) has churned out good fiction for a couple of decades now. I knew whatever story I picked would be a winner, even without the junior monster brigade popping ‘n locking on street corners.

“Children of Transylvania, 1983” is instead about Joannah, a woman from Chicago, in her twenties, on a group tour of Romania with her older sisters. Joannah graduated from college a few years earlier, but instead of embarking on a career or family or whatever, she moved into an assisted care facility with her mother, which seems as much for her as her mother—those places are just for the elderly parent, aren’t they? Joannah even dates an elderly man living in the facility, the only man she’s ever slept with; several times she notes how it disgusts even her. When her sisters mention the trip—their grandfathers are both from Romania, specifically the Transylvania area—Joannah shows signs of life, like she’s ready for something different, and signs on.

Once in Romania, Joannah reveals herself to be more of a recluse than a geriophile (I thought I made that term up, but damn, it was already on Urban Dictionary). As often as she can, she escapes the bike tour, heading off into the Romanian countryside by herself. Sadly for Joannah, her assisted living has been too assisted, as she deviates from the group without supplies, a map, or a plan. The “1983” part of the title comes into play, too, as this is Ceausescu’s Romania, trucks of soldiers rolling by her quite often, starving villagers accosting her at every turn. “Children of Transylvania, 1983” is a coming-of-age story, in a way, Joannah needing to grow up, face the realities of life, and in a hurry. Simply bringing along food never crossed her mind.

Still, a story set in Transylvania, with “Transylvania” in the title, has to be about Dracula in some way, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be a type of Chekhov’s gun, mentioning that place and pretending that vampires don’t exist? Well, it’s in there, the vampires, the count, all of it. Campbell handles this in a couple of ways, one pretty straightforward—the group is biking toward Vlad the Impaler’s ruined castle—and one that’s much more subtle. I love the characters, the setting, the intensity of Joannah’s predicament, but I love how Campbell handles this theme most of all, Joannah becoming consumed by the country, but not in the way you’d think.

I’ve never read a Bonnie Jo Campbell story that I haven’t liked, and I’ve read quite a few. I was lucky enough to publish some in Mid-American Review, one of which, “Natural Disasters,” is in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, and I enjoyed revisiting, almost twenty years later. Campbell has quietly become one of America’s most reliable and talented short story writers, and if you haven’t read her yet, I can’t recommend her work enough.

Bonnie Jo Campbell