.... and parts of it I did, but overall, this book ultimately was a disappointing, and strangely enough, compelling read.
"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?