Books: ‘Once Upon a River’ by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Ron Charles
Editor, Book World July 5, 2011

The wonder of “Once Upon a River” is how fresh and weathered it seems at the same time. Ardently turning these pages, I felt as though I’d been waiting for this book and yet somehow already knew it. After her critically acclaimed collection of short stories, “American Salvage,” Bonnie Jo Campbell has built her new novel like a modern-day craftsman from the old timbers of our national myths about loners living off the land, rugged tales as perilous as they are alluring. Without sacrificing any of its originality, this story comes bearing the saw marks of classic American literature, the rough-hewn sister of “The Leatherstocking Tales,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Walden.”   

The scene opens in the early 1980s in a small town that’s slowly losing its biggest employer, a metal-fabricating plant yoked to the collapsing Michigan economy. Campbell, who lives near Kalamazoo and seems entirely capable of castrating a pig or changing the spark plugs on her truck, has been writing about tough people in rural communities for years. Though most of this novel stays out in the woods, she knows how to suggest the malaise and desperation in town — the abandoned homes, the minimum-wage jobs, the fertilizer diverted to meth. But the collapse of manufacturing also holds the promise of giving the natural world a reprieve: As the metal plant shuts down, the chemical discharge into the Stark River diminishes, too.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy. View Archive

That river is the real home of Campbell’s unforgettable heroine, a quiet young woman named Margo Crane, who seems to have slipped back in time almost 200 years. She’s a poor, distant relative of the late founder of the town’s dying metal plant. She knows how to handle a boat, and she can skin a deer and cook up the squirrels she shoots with startling accuracy. Entirely uninterested in school or other teens’ giddy pursuits, she owns only one book, a biography of Annie Oakley, and her only goal is to live by the water and take care of someone who loves her. But that simple plan is wrecked by her own untouched beauty, which catches the eyes of several malevolent, weak and cowardly men.

In the first chapter, when Margo has just turned 15, her uncle rapes her in a shed and, when caught in the act, claims his pretty niece seduced him. That assault, ignored by her embarrassed family, eventually leads to another violent confrontation that sends Margo up the Stark River on her grandfather’s boat. She has vague plans of finding her mother, but mostly she wants to live in peace, eating what she can catch and sleeping where she can, outside the range of the law, school or social workers.

In Campbell’s crisp, verdant prose, this errand in the wilderness is quiet but intense. Looking like an angel but smelling like a rutting buck, Margo is the cover girl Field & Stream can only dream of, a throwback to a frontier character civilized out of existence. When she takes down a deer too big for her to carry, for instance, “she got the idea finally to crawl headfirst beneath the creature’s torso. She wiggled beneath the body in the cold mud until she was squeezed on her belly all the way under the deer. She smelled its musk and urine, she smelled blood and earth and moss and sweat, felt its warm weight on her neck and back. When the deer was on her and the mud was in her nose, inside her jacket, down her pants, and in her socks, she thought she would smother. . . . She gathered all her strength, lifted her head up under the deer’s chin, and slowly raised her body.”

Tough as this young woman is, her survival is never guaranteed as she falls in with men who love her and men who abuse her. (And yes, they’re sometimes the same men.) You can’t help but share Margo’s raw hope each time she moves on, a little more wary, trying to figure out how to live. “She would count on no one to help or protect her,” Margo thinks, but wise as that decision may be — and it’s confirmed by her horrible experiences — it’s ultimately too lonely. In one of her darkest moments, she realizes that she had “let herself become a person who was no longer connected to other people.” Back on the water after another betrayal, “she climbed onto the boat’s back seat beside her rifle and curled there and thought about how nice it was to float, to let the river guide her.”

Margo may be paddling in the wake of Natty Bumppo, Huck Finn and Henry David Thoreau, but unlike those asexual heroes of the American wilderness, she’s a sexually active woman, which complicates our myth of the rugged woodsman considerably. It’s not long on her journey before “Margo had the feeling that her newly shaped body had a power that she needed to keep secret.” This is, after all, a story predicated on sexual violence, and when she can, Margo strikes back at one of her assailants in a singularly appropriate way. But what place is there — even in the wilds of Michigan — for a young woman who dares to live on her own and enjoy her own body? “Was it her worn jeans that made the woman call her freak?” Margo wonders. “Her worn Carhartt jacket? Was it her dark, heavy rowboat with its splintery oars? Or her gun visible on the back seat? Or was she a freak, plain and simple, a wolf girl, an aberration?”

In a hundred different ways, Margo hears that she’s not right, that she’s not acceptable, that her experience on the river can’t last. A Native American man who sleeps with her tells her, “You can’t get ahead in this life if you don’t finish school,” but Margo cuts right to the problem: “I don’t want to get ahead. What’s so great about getting ahead?”

For many chapters this is a sad, harrowing story, but Campbell doesn’t leave us there. Margo’s hushed voice is so pure, her spirit so indomitable, that you’ll yearn for her to find the freedom she craves, along with a stretch of clean water. “Once Upon a River” makes you realize with a stab of regret just how cramped and homogeneous our lives and our expectations of others are. I hope Margo’s out there somewhere skinning a catfish and cooking it on a hickory stick. It’s a hard life, to be sure, but this novel is a celebration of that possibility and its brutal costs.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

once upon a river

By Bonnie Jo Campbell

Norton. 348 pp. $25.95

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