Saturday, August 6, 2011

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

If you’re a bettor, place your money on Once Upon a River for the National Book Award; it’s that good.  On the first page Bonnie Jo Campbell clearly defines Margo Crane as an intrepid heroine. “When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her.” Her grandfather taught her to fish and trap and he appreciated that she could sit without speaking for hours in the prow of his boat. “He called her Sprite or River Nymph.  Her cousins called her Nympho, though not usually within the old man’s hearing.”

Many are comparing Margo to Huck Finn and that’s accurate but Margo’s also an original defined by her actions yet resolute in remaining true to her convictions. Like her hero, Annie Oakley, she’s a great shooter and a survivor.  She lives “outside” both literally and figuratively – outside on the river and outside convention as a young girl on her own without a home or an education.  Her mother abandons her, her grandfather dies, and her uncle rapes her so when her father is killed in a vivid scene in which she uses her sharp-shooting skills to shoot off the top of her uncle’s penis, fifteen-year-old Margo feels compelled to escape to the aptly named Stark River outside Kalamazoo, Michigan,

Margo lives for the river and for shooting and preparing what she’s shot.  “She’d be fine after that initial cut, after she turned the deer from a dead creature into meat. It had come as a surprise that killing was the easy part.”  She's extraordinarily beautiful and is as attractive to males as the majestic deer she herself tracks. Her beauty makes her the ideal woman for many of the men she meets and even her absent mother sees her only as a vessel of her beauty and its ability to attract. Margo, though, learns to use her beauty and her skills to survive.  When she needs cash she shoots muskrats with a shot through the eyeball carefully embedding the bullet into the brain to save the fur so she’ll get top dollar for it.

As Margo navigates her boat down the river she hooks up with Brian whose food and cabin provide the essentials she needs and the sex that comforts her. Brian claims her, calls her Maggie and tries to make her the person he needs.  After his brother attacks her she moves across the river to a more upright gentleman: 28-year-old Michael, who has a real job, attends church and believes in doing the right thing. Michael calls her Margaret Louise and she lives comfortably with him until she does something so unconventional that she can no longer remain.

She next meets an Indian who never gives his name.  “He had come to her for help, and she had helped him.  She had fed him, and he had paid her for the food.  Sex with him had been like nothing she had known, but if he had stayed any longer, they might have hurt each other.” Margo appears to be the victim in her encounters but each person she meets teaches her skills she needs to survive.  

The novel portrays the consequences of living in a rough world when you have no protectors and become prey.  It shows that the costs of living free without the protection of family or state are so high that anyone desiring total freedom in this world is doomed to pay for its consequences.  Just when those consequences seem too dire, Margo meets Smoke who needs her as much as she needs him. Smoke and Margo accept each other as outsiders and Margo begins to grasp that survival may be more than just having food and shelter.  Campbell intricately balances her themes of freedom, community, consequences, and living with the “sins of the fathers,” while portraying the natural world and the humans inhabiting it with absolute precision.

This novel is a page-turner so it demands two readings to appreciate the author’s incisive language especially her descriptions of the river and the natural world.  I expect teenage girls to be reading and talking about Margo Crane for many years and I hope that school boards allow teachers to assign this book despite its depiction of a teenage girl who confuses sex for security.  Once Upon a River begs to be read alongside The Scarlet Letter and what I wouldn’t give to hear teenagers compare Margo Crane to Hester Prynne.

Summing it Up:  Read it first for the plucky heroine and her journey then return to it to savor the beautiful depictions of the natural world and the unforgettable characters.  Force your book club to choose it as you’ll want to discuss it the minute you put it down.

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date: July, 2011

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