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Read With Jenna says her January 2024 pick is ‘magical’ and ‘mystical’

Jenna said it’s a journey into the “magic of the natural world.”
/ Source: TODAY

Do you like precocious 11-year-olds and strong matriarchs? Did you race through "Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens? Are you in the mood to be utterly transported to the magic of the natural world?

Then get excited for Read With Jenna's January selection, "The Waters" by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

"I love 'The Waters' by the great Bonnie Jo Campbell so much. This book is so beautiful," Jenna said.

“The Waters” by Bonnie Jo Campbell

In addition to being the first pick of 2024, "The Waters" represents another first for the club, as Jenna pointed out: "It's set in the magical mystical lands of rural Michigan. We've never chosen a book set there."

"It is about a matriarch and healer and what happens when one of her three daughters brings home a baby. You will fall in love with the girl she grows up to be. She’s one of the most funny, interesting characters of all time. It’s about mothers and daughters. A book for anyone who loves nature, land and where we find beauty and magic. I promise you’ll pick up this book and fall in love," she said.

"The Waters" unfolds on an island in the Great Massasauga Swamp, where Hermine "Herself" Zook has reigned as an esteemed and feared herbalist to the local town. Men aren't allowed on the island, and her three estranged daughters rarely come to visit. But Herself and her 11-year-old granddaughter, Donkey, live in harmony with the natural world — until it all comes crashing down.

"If you love a book about the magic of the natural world, you will love this book. If you love a book about multiple love stories, all different types of loves, you need to get this," she said.

Campbell is an award-winning author of other novels, including "American Savage," and short stories. Like her characters in "The Waters," Campbell lives in Michigan on a farm.

Speaking to TODAY, Campbell said the book had a number of inspirations.

"The first was that I wanted to explore a young woman who loved mathematics. And then as each of her family members became clearer, I understood more about the story, and a real 'aha' moment was when I let the story’s attention reach out to the men in the community, too. Then the story felt more true, honest and complete," she said.

The men in the book, who live near the island and venture to Herself for tinctures and salves, are curious onlookers — and interferers — of the Zook family.

The book has rich descriptions of the natural world and of Herself's creations. Campbell credited her friend, Sassafras Havilar, for fact-checking the tinctures, salves and tonics described in the book.

"I’m not much of an herbalist, but I’m a forager and a lover of nature, and I’m curious about the plants around me — how exciting that something as common as yarrow can be so curative," she said. "I learned a lot about herbalism in the writing."

The book is also infused with fairy-tale elements, an overarching theme in Campbell's work.

"It's not what I start out trying to do. I always start out trying to be absolutely as realistic as possible," she said. "But what happens sometimes is that by following those very realistic things, the story will touch on an old story — a fairy tale, something Shakespearean. The more I try to be true, the more it somehow hearkens to older work."

Campbell said she writes "in the most difficult way possible," with no plan other than "looking at a character and putting them in a very difficult situation and seeing what rises as a result."

"My goal in writing is to find a way to let these characters become their most true selves," she said. "What are the life challenges that make interesting people become their full blossoming of their selves?"