Once Upon a River Hardcover – Jul 5 2011
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With all the fixings of a Johnny Cash song—love, loss, redemption—Campbell captures these Michiganders and their earthy, brutal paradise in tales rich with insight and well worth the trip. — Natasha Clark (Elle)
This is a splendid story of survival in extremis, with a searingly original heroine. — Parade
...the book is a violent but inspiring tale packed with colorful river dwellers, a working-class community of power company and metal workers, farmers, hunters and housewives....Campbell has created a character with an iron gut and a heart to match, recalling powerful heroines like Clara of Joyce Carol Oates' A Garden of Earthly Delights and Ree of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone. — Liz Colville (NPR.org)
Starred Review. A dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey. A female Huckleberry Finn. A wild-child-to-caring-woman story as intricately meshed with the natural life of the river as a myth. …she conveys all that Margo does, thinks, and feels with transfixing sensuous precision, from the jolt of a gun to the muscle burn of rowing a boat against the current to the weight of a man. From killing and skinning game to falling in with outlaws and finding refuge with kind if irascible strangers, Margo’s earthy education and the profound complexities of her timeless dilemmas are exquisitely rendered and mesmerizingly suspenseful. A glorious novel destined to entrance and provoke. — Booklist
Mark Twain owns America's rivers, and writers who venture out on those waters are obliged to acknowledge his dominion. Bonnie Jo Campbell's tough and confident Once Upon a River, about a runaway teenager on Michigan's waterways, pays due homage to the bard of the Mississippi, but the novel also tells its own captivating story — Sam Sacks (Wall Street Journal)
Campbell is a bard, a full-throated singer whose melodies are odes to farms and water and livestock and fishing rods and rifles, and to hardworking folks who know the value of life as well as the randomness of life's troubles. — Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly)
It is, rather, an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom. — New York Times Book Review
American fiction waited a long time for Bonnie Jo Campbell to come along. A lot of us, not only women, were looking for a fictional heroine who would be deeply good, brave as a wolverine, never a cry baby, as able as Sacagawea, with a strong and unapologetic sexuality. We wanted to feel her roots in some ancient story, we wanted Diana the huntress, but not her virginity; we wanted a real human girl who we could believe had been suckled by bears, or wolves. To give us heroines like this, the god finally brought us Bonnie Jo Campbell, one of our most important and necessary writers, and Margo Crane, the central character of Once Upon A River, an outcast, feral beauty who can shoot like Annie Oakley, is her most poignant and mythic creation so far. — Jaimy Gordon, National Book Award winner
About the Author
Bonnie Jo Campbell teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. The author of Once Upon a River and American Salvage, she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book is the story of Margo Crane, a young woman who lives near a river in a rural area of Michigan in the 1970's. But Margo, who is about 15 when the story begins, is no ordinary teenager. She can shoot, hunt, skin an animal, and does not appear to be afraid of much. Margo will need these skills when she finds herself forced to assert her independence earlier than most teenagers do.
Be aware that this is not really a plot-driven book. This is a painting with moving characters. The backdrop of the river provides a rich canvas on which the author can place Margo and the various people she meets. As she searches for something that she has lost, she experiences fear and violence; and like many young women of her age, she often mistakes sex for love.
There were times when I struggled with this book. It is a heavy story and doesn't start to show some rays of sunshine until the very end. However, the deeper themes explored in this book are worth sticking with it. It is truly a unique story of growing up, and it raises the very legitimate question of whether we all need to have the suburban house and picket fence to be happy. The book also explores how judgmental we can be about the way that others choose to live, simply because they are different from us. The characters in this book find contentment all around them just by paying attention to life. And these are just some of the issues explored; in reality there is a kaleidoscope of concepts from which to choose for further examination after closing the book.
This is a strong recommend, but with the caveat that this is not a "beach read". This is an intense book that will keep you thinking. I know that Margo will be on my mind for quite awhile.
Margo's heroine is Annie Oakley, and indeed she is as good a shot. The descriptions of how she kills animals made me wince. But I also had the highest admiration for these hunting and butchering skills that she seemed to take for granted. Her travels throw her in contact with several men, some who help her and others who just try to use her. Often there is violence. Other times there is caring and respect. Always, she lives her life as if she, herself, is a hunted animal.
Eventually she meets a feisty old man who continues to smoke even though he's on an oxygen tank and is in a wheelchair. They develop a unique kind of friendship and how it all turns out left me feeling that her future would be positive.
I really loved this book which taught me ways to survive that I never thought about before. It also introduced me to a character who I surprisingly identified with, my eyes glued to the page as I followed her many adventures, and who made me rejoice at the book's optimistic conclusion.
"Once Upon a River" tells the story of Margo Crane, a river-girl raised to be a part of the land where she was born, into a family of ne'er-do-wells that treat her and everyone else pretty badly. At the start of the novel, Margo suffers a sexual assault from her uncle that is hideous, and yet she doesn't see it that way. After learning of the event from a spying blabbermouth, Margo's father decides to take justice into her own hands, with the predictable result. Margo then finds herself alone, yearning for the mother that ran away from the environ Margo loved. Deciding to find her, Margo takes a boat and paddles upstream to begin her adventures.
There is much to like and admire in this book. First, the character of Margo is fresh and exciting. I loved the many scenes in which she decides to take care of herself, instead of solely relying on others. Margo's wilderness skills are literally a lifesaver as she lives off the land that feeds her. Margo's skill with a rifle, and her survivalist smarts, compel this character into something quite new and exciting: a heroine for herself. Another compelling character is an old man she meets along the river, named Smoke. Dying of lung cancer, Smoke's just as determined to live his life as he sees fit as Margo. In fact, Campbell is a master of character in the story; not one comes across as phony or false, they all breathe reality.
Why the three stars then? The story itself, and the ending of it, failed to grab me as a reader. While the first part of the book is compelling as she escapes her life and goes upstream, the second half, in which she travels back downstream, starts to disappoint a bit. As Margot pops in and out of people's lives, you as a reader begin to wonder, should I invest in this relationship? Is it going to abruptly end on the next page? Margo's initial focus on sleeping with men to survive also is a bit of a turnoff. With the amount of liaisons she has in the beginning, you wonder why she isn't getting pregnant. That is sort of answered towards the end of the story, but not really.
I guess ultimately my dissatisfaction with the story was the the story itself. Bonnie Jo Campbell created such an interesting character, and then seemingly, didn't know where to go with her. I even struggle with that. Margo certain doesn't belong in the city, she isn't going to college, or following along the usual trappings that women found themselves in thirty years ago. She belongs on the river, but the river eventually ends, and where does that leave this girl that I grew to love and care for?
In reading other reviews and commentary on this book -- which is getting a lot of mainstream press that I really hope pays off for it -- I am puzzled by a few things. First off, I don't know how much I get the comparisons to Huck Finn. Because the entire book takes place on a river, and the protagonist is young, I guess that's an easy comparison to make, but I don't know how apt it is. It's been a long, long time since I read Huck Finn, though, so I could be wrong. I see a fair number of parallels with the James Dickey novel, Deliverance, myself. I don't mean the usual stuff people reference when they hear about that book ("Squeal like a pig, boy!"), I mean the struggle of a certain kind of life being shoved aside by a new era. In the Dickey novel, our river adventurers are on a stretch of water that is going to be destroyed by the building of a dam. In Bonnie's book, Margo is trying to live a life long left behind, to the extent that people can't grasp why she would even want to live that way. And that is what hit me the hardest emotionally, because I yearn to live more of a life like Margo's than the lifestyle that is constantly trying to drag me into ITS current. How those conflicts play out, not just for Margo but for other people who live on the river, whose lives are being affected by changing times, are an important undercurrent of the book (and there is another river metaphor, that I don't suspect is unintentional on Bonnie's part). Maybe that is a big part of the Mark Twain book too, I don't know, but it's definitely in the Dickey book, which I just read earlier this year and is fresher in my mind. There are also some dark deeds taking place in both Deliverance and Once Upon a River that are handled in a way that The Law knows nothing about. That's what makes the comparison more apt in my mind.
One more thing. I see a number of reviewers reference this as a "river journey." I can see that in the metaphorical sense that life, and coming of age to adulthood, is a journey, but I don't know that they mean it that way. Margo isn't using the river as a means to get from one place to another. It IS her place. It IS where she lives, and where she wants to remain. Her going up and down the river from place to place is no different that if I move from one part of town to another, and maybe out to a suburb, then back to town again. We're really talking about a very small stretch of landscape here. Is that a journey? In the literal sense, I don't really think so. I don't see Margo's trail up and down the river as being anything more than her trying to find a place on the water where she can stay. It isn't a road, it isn't a conduit . . . it's where she wants to remain. Where she wants to live, on her own terms. Trying to maintain her presence there I think is one of the important parts of the book, both literally and metaphorically.
Whatever. I loved the book. I think everyone should read it. Someone get Oprah on the phone, for cryin' out loud. . . .
Recommended to readers who enjoy great writing about the natural world.