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. . . .