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About The Book

The debut novel from the National Book Award-nominated author of American Salvage and The Waters—A Today Show Read with Jenna Book Club Pick!

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 humor and empathy, Bonnie Jo Campbell reveals the beauty and strangeness of her characters—ferocious women, confused men, and hungry children. Offering keen insights into modern rural America, Campbell explores the rich and ragged landscape of a town where family traditions have flown the coop and only the cycle of the seasons remains. 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.


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 wag 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

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
Q Road

Discussion Points
  1. Campbell begins and ends her book with depictions of woolly bears. What do these orange-and-black caterpillars symbolize? What other symbols or metaphors recur throughout Q Road?
  2. In addition to the three central personalities (Rachel, George, and David), Q Road has quite a few supporting characters. How does the story benefit from Elaine Shore's alien fixation or Johnny Harland's swaggering confidence? What do you learn about Greenland Township through Mary O'Kearsy or Milton Taylor? Why do you suppose the author created such a sprawling cast?
  3. In chapter 20, Elaine Shore's lawyer dubs her a "pioneer" for her attempts to bring "civilization" to Q Road. What compels people like Elaine and the Hoekstras to move to rural areas? How do you explain their reaction to the unexpected "disorder" of their rural neighborhood? Analyze the omniscient narrator's tone in chapter 20 and at other points in the novel that address the development of former farmland.
  4. Rachel is an unconventional, abrasive young woman. Is it still possible to identify or sympathize with her? Why or why not? How and why has she come to love George Harland's land so much?
  5. In chapter 3, Margo says to Rachel, "I thought I could raise a girl to be something on her own, but you act no better than a creature clawing its way up the riverbank to get caught in somebody's trap" (25). How does Margo contribute to what happens that night between Rachel and Johnny? Why does Margo shoot Johnny? What do you think happens to Margo after she kills him?
  6. When Margo shoots Johnny in chapter 3, she also shoots a chicken, a detail the author highlights in a darkly comic way. Where else in Q Road does Campbell contrast tragedy and comedy? What purpose does such a literary device serve?
  7. David feels closer to Rachel and George than he does to his parents. Trace the origin of his feelings. Discuss the ideas of parenthood and family as they are depicted in Q Road.
  8. What clues in the first half of the novel alert you to the fact that something disastrous is about to happen? Were you able to predict what the impending disaster would be?
  9. Review pages 127 and 128, where David drops his cigarette in the barn, then finds it again. What were you thinking during this scene? At the end of chapter 17, did you think David was dead? What was your reaction when you found he had survived the fire? How do his several near-death experiences fit into the story?
  10. Considering the couples in Q Road -- Rachel and Johnny, Rachel and George, Nicole and Steve, Old Harold and Henrietta, April May and Larry -- which seems healthiest? Compare Rachel's and George's reasons for marrying to the other couples' motivations. Are Rachel and George more or less opportunistic, more or less honest than the other characters?
  11. Read the passage on page 123 beginning with the description of Sally's bedroom. How does the author's characterization of Sally reinforce and/or confound our cultural stereotypes of the poor? Compare Sally to other poor characters in the novel. How are the poor in Q Road similar to or different from the poor in other contemporary fiction? How would you characterize the omniscient narrator's attitude toward poverty?
  12. The events of Q Road take place on October 9, 1999, but are interspersed with the history of the people who have lived in the vicinity for centuries. What impact does the historical material have on the present action of the novel? Explore the importance of history to selected characters. How do the ancestral stories told by characters such as Old Harold and Margo change as they are handed down to the next generation? Why does Rachel cling to her story of the Potawatomi Corn Girl?
  13. Discuss the scene in chapter 36 in which Steve Hoekstra discovers Nicole stabbing a pumpkin on the deck of their prefabricated home. How might Steve and Nicole's life together be different from this point forward?
  14. Birds of many species populate Q Road -- chickens, crows, chickadees, and turkey vultures, to name a few. Compare Officer Parks's seagull observations on page 87 with April May's musings about English sparrows on page 100. How do these passages resonate with the themes of the novel? Why do you suppose Steve Hoekstra drives a Thunderbird? What purpose does chapter 14 -- the description of Gray Cat hunting -- serve within the larger scheme of the novel?
  15. On page 117, Old Harold tells George that Mary O'Kearsy "was as beautiful as the day is long." On page 232, Tom Parks uses the same expression to describe Margo Crane. Why do you suppose the author linked the two women (or these two men) in this manner?
  16. Many of the characters in Q Road imagine that nature avenges human wrongdoing. What is the purpose of personifying nature in this way? Compare Harold's view of the 1934 tornado on pages 200-206 with Henrietta's perspective on pages 219-20. Explain how and why they see the same events so differently.
  17. While Q Road is a novel about community, it is also about the difficulties of human connection. Consider the causes and effects of loneliness and isolation for Rachel, Margo, George, David, Nicole, and Officer Parks.
  18. Read the passage on pages 31-32 that begins "When the cattle had busted down the fence a few days ago, George wasn't around" and ends "The bedsprings were an announcement to the world that farming was no longer a sensible way of making a living..." What motivates George and other farmers to continue to farm when they have to struggle so desperately to survive?
  19. Why do you think the pain in April May's foot disappears after the barn burns down?
  20. Henrietta Harland and Rachel Crane are both gifted gardeners, able to sense the coming of the first hard frost in time to protect their yield. Are Henrietta and Rachel alike in other ways? How are they different?
  21. What do you think of Rachel's reaction to David when she finds him standing outside the house after the fire?
  22. Tom Parks describes Sally as "an element of nature" on page 263. Does this comparison surprise you? What is fitting about it?
  23. April May believes that Greenland farmers and the new residents in the prefab houses can get along "if only everyone would be sensible and tolerant" (174). She muses that a natural disaster like the tornado of 1934 might rally Greenland to a common cause "the way God used to" (175). Does the barn fire have this effect on the residents of Q Road? What would you say the future holds for Q Road?

Copyright © 2002 by Bonnie Jo Campbell

About The Author

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the bestselling author of six works of fiction, including The WatersOnce Upon a River, and American Salvage, a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. 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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (June 14, 2011)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451660760

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Raves and Reviews

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.

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