Once Upon a River, a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell


Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Reading a Bonnie Jo Campbell book is like sitting down for a cuppa, or a cold one, with your very best gal pal. You can let loose and relax, kick off your shoes, loosen your girdle, because she does, her story does, the way it weaves in and around you and floats you along, easy, easy. Just like a river. No pretenses. Nearly effortless. No masks required, because Campbell will see through them, or, more accurately, doesn’t seem to have a clue that masks exist. She is what she is, and her books reflect that authenticity. Maybe no one has convinced Campbell that some in the harried human race believe masks are required gear for survival.

Not in Campbell’s world. She is the rare blend of a literary talent with a knack for telling a good tale. While there are plenty of one, and quite a few of the other, a solid blend of the two is a rarity. We begin to float down her Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton & Company, July 2011), rocked by waves without ever being jerked around, not even at the sound of a gunshot.

Campbell’s novel tells the story of Margo Crane, a 16-year-old girl, beautiful without knowing it, or caring one way or another. Margo has grown up in Michigan country, not far from the Kalamazoo River on a smaller river called the Stark. “The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.”

This is a girl who handles a gun like an extension of her own body. She idolizes Annie Oakley. She lives with her father in the back country, her mother abandoned her years ago, and she is nowhere more at peace than when she is drifting on the river, watching painted turtles or catching fish or counting herons. She knows how to skin a rabbit and she shoots to kill when she sees game.

A reoccurring theme in Campbell’s books is the woman wounded by life and by men, as a result tough and wise and independent — a survivor. Margo Crane joins that line-up. She isn’t educated in academics, but she knows how to maneuver through life like a river, and little scares her. Like many young girls, she almost doesn’t get it when she is raped by an uncle — was it her fault somehow? It is unclear to her when to defend herself, but when defending someone she loves, the line of fire is very clear. More than once, more than twice, she must shoot with that uncanny ability she has to hit an acorn across a field to save the innocent from the brutality of a man gone wild.

“She studied the railroad-tie fence post from its base to its top, as it rose to about her own height. She studied the green fruit with the burr acorn on top. Beyond it was the smooth expanse of river. She wrapped the sling around her left hand and elbow and pushed against it. When she nestled the stock in her shoulder and pressed her cheek against it, her stance and grip were solid. The Indian disappeared, and she was alone with her gun and her target. She looked through her sights … for Margo there usually came an instant like now when she felt solidly rooted to the planet. Without a conscious decision to do so, she smoothly pressed the trigger straight back and held it there as the rifle sent the bullet down the barrel on its way to the acorn.” (Page 213)

Margo’s journey floats her down that river by ripple effect from her actions, a stream carrying her along, but it is the stops she makes along the way that bring in the conflicts of the story. Tossed out of life as she knows it when her father dies, in part due to her sharp shot, she searches for the mother who abandoned her. She finds her, if not quite what she is looking for, but finds also mutations of love, mutations of hatred, and sometimes the two intertwined.

An inescapable lesson for a pretty woman is to always watch for the man who will hurt her, as nearly all of them do — even the ones who seem to care about her. Rape is always a threat, and sometimes more than just a threat. She is conflicted in how to handle an unwanted pregnancy, thinking she wants one kind of resolution while moving almost unwillingly toward another.

The real love of Margo’s life, alongside the river, turns out to be Smoke — a man too old to be a threat or even a caretaker, but someone who allows her to become one. With his crass manner, not unlike her own, he teaches her to allow for gentler moments. Each of them have a battle to wage in their lives, although each to a different end. Yet that is how a river moves between its banks: living and dying intertwined, youth and old age, the gentle moment leaning against the instant of brutality, moving along in the direction life navigates you, but occasionally managing to paddle to shore, until you are pushed into the rapids again.

Campbell understands that the world is generally made to fit one kind of person — the kind that does not exist anywhere but in the hopeful mind. All the rest of us just have to make do. Her characters are those who do not fit but eventually surprise with how exceptionally well they make do.

Once Upon a River continues Campbell’s literary journey, easing along in irresistible flow. We can’t help but be carried along. Emerging from these waters, we feel refreshed, if a little wiser, if a little more sure about fitting in with a world of misfits. We all are one. Campbell makes that feel like the best way to be, if not the only way to survive.

Bonnie Jo Campbell will read from Once Upon a River on Friday, August 5, from 1-3 p.m. at the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor. She is the author of two short story collections, Women & Other Animals (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999; Simon & Schuster, 2003) and American Salvage (Wayne State University Press, 2009; W.W. Norton, 2009) and the novel Q Road (Scribner, 2003). American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has won a Pushcart Prize and the Eudora Welty Prize. Her stories, essays and poetry have appeared in many publications, including The Smoking Poet. She was born and lives now in Kalamazoo.