Review: Once Upon A River

A novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon A River, W.W. Norton & Company. Review by Forrest Anderson

Cover of Cambell's book.

Toward the end of Once Upon a River, a farmer negotiating a crop-damage hunting permit with the novel’s protagonist, Margo Crane, tells her he has heard she’s a “regular sharpshooter” and “some kind of throwback.” Margo, forced to navigate life on her own terms on the fictional Stark River in western Michigan, doesn’t understand what the man means by throwback “apart from fish too small to bother eating.” All she knows is that life on the river means “freedom to travel away… if she had any trouble,” and at sixteen she’s encountered her fair share for a girl who should be too young to be bothered.

Trouble finds Margo quickly and easily in the novel’s opening chapter. The grandfather who dubs her “River Nymph” and teaches her how to shoot, fish, trap turtles, and “read upon the surface of the water evidence of distress below” dies after an illness “washing away… whatever invisible glue and strings had been holding the Murray’s together.” Shortly after, her mother leaves her and her father because she “could not bear living [on the river].” Then, over Thanksgiving, her Uncle Cal—“the finest man in this town, her mother had said”—lures Margo into a shed under the pretense of teaching her how to skin a deer, lays her “down on his big jacket on the dirt floor,” tells her she’s so lovely “it’s unholy,” and rapes her.

Two chapters and a year later, Margo,now a practiced and expert sharpshooter like her hero Annie Oakley, exacts her revenge by stalking her uncle, catching him peeing by the river, and shooting“off the tip of his pecker without hitting any other part of him.” In the confusion that follows, her father is mistaken for the shooter and ends up shot dead by a cousin. Alone and feeling culpable for her father’s death she decides to flee upriver on her grandfather’s teak rowboat, The River Rose, and survive on her own by hunting, fishing, and foraging for food.

The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salamanders in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count the herons in the heronry beside the Murrayville cemetery. She tied up her boat and followed shallow feeder streams to collect crayfish, watercress, and tiny wild strawberries. Her feet were toughed against sharp stones and broken glass. When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her.

—the novel unfolds in a tightly-woven episodic manner as the protagonist encounters a varied cast of characters. She finds refuge with a pair of hardscrabble brothers, falling in love with Brian who continues her river education by teaching her “to thin-slice half-frozen venison,” distinguish “the qualities of different types of firewood,” and “about keeping under the radar of the authorities” while growing to fear drug-addled Paul.

When her relationship with the brothers seemingly changes overnight for the worse, she moves on to another man upriver named, Michael, who offers her a glimpse of a domestic life off the river. Unable to sacrifice her wildness, she takes up with a Native American following “the Potawatomi migration route… from the Upper Peninsula, all the way to the Kalamazoo River.” Away from her native Stark River for the first time in her life, she befriends two elderly men, Smoke and Fishbone, who recognize her as a frontierswoman, teach her how to live as a trapper, and provide her with a permanent means for survival on the Kalamazoo.

Finally, she tracks down the mother who abandoned her with the hope that she can help answer the question that’s driven Margo’ journey up and downriver: did she somehow bring her mother’s leaving, her sexual assault, her father’s murder, and the dissolution of her family on herself. Campbell, in this way, brings the novel full circle but doesn’t outright answer any questions. Instead, the beauty of the landscape and the ugliness of the violence do the talking.

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of three previous books of fiction including American Salvage, a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Forrest Anderson’s stories have appeared in BULL, Men’s Fiction, Blackbird, The South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the doctoral creative writing program at Florida State University, where he worked for two years as an archivist and assistant for Robert Olen Butler, he also holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of South Carolina. Currently, he lives in Salisbury, NC and is an assistant professor at Catawba College.