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Once Upon A River [Hardcover]

Bonnie Jo Campbell

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Book Description

July 5 2011
Bonnie Jo Campbell has created an unforgettable heroine in sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, a beauty whose unflinching gaze and uncanny ability with a rifle have not made her life any easier. After the violent death of her father, in which she is complicit, Margo takes to the Stark River in her boat, with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley, in search of her vanished mother. But the river, Margo's childhood paradise, is a dangerous place for a young woman traveling alone, and she must be strong to survive, using her knowledge of the natural world and her ability to look unsparingly into the hearts of those around her. Her river odyssey through rural Michigan becomes a defining journey, one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: WW Norton (July 5 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393079899
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393079890
  • Product Dimensions: 2.9 x 16.5 x 24.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 454 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #507,108 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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 is the author of three previous books, including 'American Salvage', a National Book Award finalist. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  112 reviews
100 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique and at times uncomfortable story July 3 2011
By EJ - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book may very well stay in my mind for a long time. There seem to be so many issues and subtexts addressed that I have been thinking about it since I finished it two days ago.

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.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rural landscape that challenges this young woman's survival skills July 2 2011
By Linda Linguvic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I live in New York City and live a life which is the direct polar opposite of that of Margo Crane, the 16-year old heroine in this book. Hunting and fishing are part of her hardscrabble life. And so is the family feud rooted in a relative's abuse that leaves her father dead and her life in danger. She then needs to flee to safety through a rural landscape that challenges her survival skills. She follows the river, sometimes by boat and sometimes on foot, trying to stay alive and also trying to find her mother who had abandoned the family several years before.

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.
45 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I really wanted to like it... July 6 2011
By James Hiller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
.... 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?
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wait Worth Enduring July 5 2011
By Chris La Tray - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Definitely one of my most anticipated reads of the year. After devouring all of Bonnie's previous work last year over the course of a couple weeks, I could hardly wait for its release -- in fact, I arranged my schedule so that I could manage a 9 hour drive just so I could get it at its earliest possible appearance -- and it didn't disappoint. As a storyteller, this writer is one of my favorites, and her writing never gets in the way of what she's using it to say. So many literary writers are so intent on creating beautiful sentences that they fail to deliver good books and stories, and that is never a problem for Bonnie Jo.

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. . . .
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 4.5 stars) "I've been trying to figure out how to live." June 13 2011
By Luan Gaines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Her beloved grandfather has passed, her beautiful but discontented mother run away and her father is dead, Margaret Louise Crane facing a drastically altered world at sixteen. The idyllic rural playground of her youth with across-the-river Murray cousins and the guidance of her Grandpa Murray relinquished to the past, Margo learns the value of silence and the price of revenge: "Trying to keep things even, you could lose everything." With her father's death, a lifetime of family ties is in tatters. Margo steals away on the Snake River to find her errant mother in a boat bequeathed by her grandfather, with only her hunting skills and instincts for company. Margo's journey takes her into the primitive terrain of survival where men and nature rule, her moral compass spinning in confusion as she faces the hard bargains made in moments of need. Her age puts Margo on the wrong side of the law with the men who offer shelter, the guidance of parents forfeit to drunkenness, violence and revenge, a vigilant Margo bargaining as best she can in a place that doesn't favor weakness.

Margo's passage from adolescent to adult is the stuff of myth and nightmare, Campbell's heroic protagonist existing in a wilderness both bountiful and indifferent, one that rivals the wilderness in the girl's aching heart, a lost daughter in pursuit of a reluctant mother, a child with no security and nowhere to rest her weary head. Carrying a tattered biography of Annie Oakley in her pack, Margo forges a trail where her body is too often bartered for comfort and boundaries are blurred by necessity. Margo loves her gun, the river and her freedom, balancing the burdens of love, betrayal and grief- and the knowledge that love is found in the most unexpected places, the reward of one who measures such things carefully. This is a landscape of many diversions, Margo's path bred of self-awareness, painful experience and deep affection. Luan Gaines/2011.

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