Once Upon a River

  • Bonnie Jo Campbell
  • W.W. Norton
  • 346 pp.

Armed with wilderness skills and no self-pity, a young girl sets out on an epic river journey to find her mother.

Reviewed by Herta B. Feely

This compelling American odyssey opens with a peek into young Margo Crane’s life amid Michigan’s watery wildlife: The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks and ospreys and to search for a tiger salamander in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count the herons in the heronry beside the Murrayville cemetery.

But this seemingly peaceful setting is short lived. Margo Crane — “so lovely, it’s unholy” — is raped by her uncle and abandoned by her mother. She loses her grandfather, and in a finely wrought twist of fate is responsible for killing her father. So begins Once Upon a River, a riveting story that follows this 15-year-old’s journey over three difficult years. The novel is written by Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the short story collection American Salvage, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009. Similar to the earlier work, which takes an unflinching look at small town America, this book examines the odd assortment of rural dwellers collected along the Stark and Kalamazoo Rivers, most of them eking out a living, some legally, some not.

After losing everyone dear to her, Margo sets out on an epic river journey to find her mother. She’s a little bit Huck Finn, a little bit Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, a lot like her heroine, Annie Oakley. The quiet, word-shy but independent and brave Margo has taught herself to shoot and hunt better than most men. (In five days, with her sharpshooter-aim, she kills three bucks.) Still she is young and inexperienced, and must develop skills and a mind-set to protect herself, especially from strangers wanting to take advantage of her. Though sadness wraps itself around Margo, and too often awful stuff happens, she’s never a victim. A strong but compassionate female character is key to this story.

Bonnie Jo Campbell, like her protagonist Margo, shares a penchant for self-reliance and adventure. Frankly, I’m not sure which one I like better. Like Margo, author Campbell spent much of her youth on Michigan’s waterways. She’s fiercely independent and ready to defend herself (having mastered shooting a Marlin Golden 39A, the rifle Margo uses throughout the novel); she’s knowledgeable about and appreciates the natural world, and in her youth she often traveled alone. As a youngster Campbell rode her horse at night into Kalamazoo. In her teens she led bicycle tours through Europe. As a young woman she traveled on her bicycle from Michigan to Boston, camping outside and repelling men interested in her. Once she hitchhiked from Chicago to Phoenix, where she joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus for a sojourn as a snow-cone vendor.

As a writer, Campbell didn’t begin her career until she was 35, when she went for an M.F.A. in fiction. And then success didn’t come easily. Early on, she made as many as 100 short story submissions before receiving an acceptance. Her first breakthrough came with her first short-story collection, Women and Other Animals, published in 1999. It received the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Award for Short Fiction. Three years later her novel Q Road was published. (There are suggestions it’s the prequel to Once Upon a River.) Despite this success, her agent, the well-known Amanda Urban, dropped her, saying of American Salvage and Once Upon a River that she didn’t find the books interesting. Campbell is now with literary agent Bill Clegg (author of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man).

Already on various lists of the most anticipated books of 2011, Once Upon a River ranks right up there with such great adventure and survival stories as Huckleberry Finn, Deliverance and Ann Patchett’s recent State of Wonder. A series of male characters enter and exit the protagonist’s life, some out to help and protect her, others wanting to take advantage of her. Like Huck, she’s a keen observer, and each lesson adds to her knowledge about how to live off the land and defend herself. Campbell offers detailed knowledge of guns and rifles, ammunition and shooting, and the book is a regular how-to on scaling fish, plucking fowl and skinning small mammals. At times the story reminded me of the Newberry Award-winning novel Hatchet, a survival story of a 13-year-old boy, Brian, whose plane crashes in a remote Canadian forest, leaving him with nothing but his wits and a hatchet to bring him to safety. While Margo often lives within sight of civilization, she might as well be as distant from it as Brian.

Even the lesser characters are clearly drawn, and sometimes with nothing more than a few deft strokes. For example, here’s Uncle Cal defending himself to his wife after raping 15-year-old Margo: “The little slut lured me in here, Jo, I swear I never touched her.” Brian, who takes her in: “Despite his size, he was not heavy on her. Margo gripped his arms, and she saw how he formed a house around her, how his big body became a dwelling in which she could live and be safe.” And her mother Luanne, who promised in a note to come back for Margo, but never did. This, when Margo finds her: Luanne glanced behind her, into the house, and said with a sigh, “I heard about the accident six months after the fact. I should have gone to you, but it seemed too late.” (What kind of mother thinks, much less talks, like that?)

At times, I cried, my heart breaking for Margo. Of one thing you can be certain, there’s never a dull moment. The ending is as satisfying as the beginning, In case you can’t tell, I’m a Bonnie Jo Campbell convert and intend to read every book and story she writes.

Herta B. Feely is an editor and writer (www.chrysaliseditorial.com) who has received several awards for her writing. Her short fiction and memoir have been published in numerous literary journals, and her most recent book, Confessions: Fact or Fiction?, was published in December.

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