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Once Upon a River

November 22, 2011

The other day I panicked when I thought I’d locked myself out of the house. What would I do? If I were Margo, the heroine in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s latest novel, Once Upon a River, I would shimmy a lock loose, pry open a window, or build a campfire and make myself comfortable. Not me. I just stared at my barking dogs through the windows and willed them to unlock the door. They stared back, barked some more and then got back on the couch to finish their naps. I started to sweat and run through various 911 scenarios. Then I tried the door knob again. It opened. It was just stuck. Whew – that was a close call.

But for Campbell’s heroine, Margaret Louise Crane (Margo), that situation would have been a no-brainer. She’s Annie Oakley reincarnated and can shoot the burning ash off a cigarette in your mouth at fifty paces. She can shoot a deer, skin a muskrat and cook you a duck dinner over a camp fire. She knows how to take a gun apart, clean it, and put it back together. Occasionally, she falls for a archetypal misfit of a man, and she has a soft spot for dogs.

Once Upon a River is a coming-of-age story that seems to rise from the earth itself.  Nature, mostly the Stark River, acts as a powerful magnet pulling Margo to her next destination, encounter, and challenge. From page one of this fast-moving, page-turning story, I was riveted by the circumstances of her life. She grew up poor on the banks of a river in rural Michigan, and she is just a fifteen when her grandfather dies and her depressed mother abandons her. She copes with her loss by becoming a sharpshooter like her idol Oakley. A year later, a man takes advantage of her and then events, motivated by a little revenge, conspire to take her father from her. At sixteen, she finds herself alone and ready to strike out on her own.

Margo loads up her grandfather’s boat, The River Rose, with essentials such as a fishing pole, tarp, rifle and some ammo and then takes off down the river.  Soon enough the reader realizes this will be no idyllic romp in the woods. There are nasty people out there – mostly of the male variety and very reminiscent of Donald Ray Pollock’s cast of characters in his The Devil All the Time. There are also certain authorities that consider Margo a person of interest. For this reason, she needs to lie low, travel under cover of night and stay mostly on the river.

The self-reliant Margo is an anachronism. Although the story takes place in the early 80s, she seems to be living 100 years earlier, as she shoots a deer with her Marlin rifle, racks it and puts its meat up for the winter. She doesn’t bathe for weeks and rarely reads a paper or listens to the radio. Her life is all about survival and the day-to-day logistics of making sure she has food to eat, ammo and a place to sleep, but it’s also about the happiness she finds in the wilderness by herself.  It’s what you would get if you combined Twain’s Huck Finn with Thoreau’s Walden. Modern day themes of polluted rivers, abortion clinics and the scourge of drugs pop in every so often and jolt the reader back to the present day, which makes for an interesting counterpoint.
Details are integral to the believability of an adventure of this sort and it is here that Campbell really shines as a writer. With beautiful descriptive prose, she renders details as only someone who has observed nature with a keen eye can:

“In the second week of September, the nights became cool. The disappearance of the hummingbirds and the arrival of a dozen white-throated sparrows, as well as the red tinge on the snakes of poison ivy spiraling the oldest trees, told her autumn was coming, soon to be followed by winter.”
And on self-reliance:

“She searched the empty cupboards. Inside a bread box she found a boxed brownie mix, and in the drawer beneath the oven, a tin pie pan. She collected paper and wood in a bag to use for starting a fire and carried them outside through the window….She built a fire just upstream from where her boat was hidden. She stirred water into the brownie mix and balanced the pie tin of batter above the fire on three rocks, and while it cooked, she munched the raw vegetables. The brownies burned on the bottom, but still tasted sweet and good.”

You might think molestation and revenge are major themes, but really those are just coals on the fire of the abandonment theme which seems more central to the story. Certainly she was taken advantage of, but it didn’t send her over the edge.  In fact, she enjoys sex as much as the men she has it with do, usually, or at least sees it as a means to an end. She sometimes feels frustrated at their tendency to want to take what belongs to her, whether it’s her body or her freedom, but she doesn’t yell rape and she makes sure she keeps her freedom.

A major thread running through the story is Margo’s quest to find the mother who abandoned her. This search weaves from the foreground to the background and is eventually resolved, but not in a pat ending. In fact, there are no neat and tidy resolutions and that, to me, is a good thing. Thankfully, Once Upon a River doesn’t get all precious on the reader. It could have easily fallen into that trap in less-skilled hands, but Campbell is a master storyteller. As in real life, Margo’s life is messy and though you might hope for a miracle for her, you will be happy with the imperfectly perfect ending, which leaves the reader with the knowledge that there is more than one way to lead a life worth living.

W. W. Norton & Company, 2011

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