Once Upon a River
Bonnie Jo Campbell
hardcover, 348 pages
now also available in paperback
My copy was borrowed from the library at the school where I work. My apologies to the students whose papers I didn't grade while I was reading this book...
Like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Margo Crane lives on a river and rebels against the notion of being "civilized." In her superb novel Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell uses mythology overlaid by a gritty and earthy reality to explore one young woman's journey toward herself.
The female hero at the heart of this gripping and dreamlike novel is Margo Crane, a sharpshooter with a stolen rifle whose role model is Annie Oakley. When Margo is caught up in a violent and tragic family incident, she runs away--but not very far. Like Huck Finn, Margo hides on a river--in this case it is the Stark River, and then the Kalamazoo River. Like Odysseus she is trying to go home--in this instance to her runaway, neglectful mother.
Once Upon a River is firmly rooted in the landscape (and riverscape) of Michigan, and Margo is a creature of the land and the river...but mostly the river. When the novel begins Margo is just fifteen years old, and by the end of the novel she is eighteen, an adult by legal standards. But Margo, whose grandfather liked to call her Sprite, or River Nymph, is both painfully young and naive, and ancient and wise. She is an abandoned daughter who can live off the river, feeding herself with the deer she shoots and the fish she catches. She says very little and observes a great deal, and in Once Upon a River nature and her denizens assume a mythic importance. This is a novel where a golden retriever catches fish in his muzzle, a deer holds a bird in his mouth, and a heron swoops from the sky and fishes a gleaming rifle from the river. Magic and nature are intertwined, and the prose is as supple and lucid as a dream.
Margo Crane is stripped of everything trivial and extraneous. As she travels through the novel she meets many characters, most of them men, and most of them intent on using her in one way or another. Margo learns about life as she goes along, never content to accept the morality or the rules of the civilized world. Like Huck Finn, she is puzzled by the ironies and hypocrisies of the modern world. At moments Margo seems both savage and tender, but she is always startlingly brave and true.
I really don't even have the language to express just how much I loved this novel, and how much I loved the character of Margo. I put my life on hold while I was reading Once Upon a River, irritated at the intrusion of everyday life as I sank into the beautiful, almost surreal, dreamlike world of the book. Then, as I neared the end of the novel, I deliberately slowed my reading pace, unwilling to let the book end. Once Upon a River is definitely one of the best books I've read this year, and I am currently devouring Bonnie Jo Campbell's stories. Campbell also has another novel, Q Road, which is set in the same landscape as Once Upon a River, and whose plot intersects with the later novel's in ways I won't go into here.
It is a great pleasure for a reader to find a writer whose work you can delve into, assured of the riches you will encounter. For years I've been reading and hearing about Bonnie Jo Campbell, and now I'm wondering what took me so long.... I'm looking forward to reading every word she's ever written.