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Once Upon a River

3.67  ·  Rating Details  ·  5,625 Ratings  ·  1,080 Reviews
Bonnie Jo Campbell has created an unforgettable heroine in sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, a beauty whose unflinching gaze and uncanny ability with a rifle have not made her life any easier.

After the violent death of her father, in which she is complicit, Margo takes to the Stark River in her boat, with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley, in search of her v
Hardcover, 348 pages
Published July 5th 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. (first published January 1st 2011)
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Community Reviews

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Jason Pettus
Aug 18, 2011 Jason Pettus rated it it was amazing
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

(Originally written for Daniel Casey's Gently Read Literature.)

The more critical examinations of novels I do, the more I'm starting to realize that our enjoyment of them -- and I mean in this case a deep, lasting enjoyment that stays with you even years later -- relies not just on the typical issues of plo
Sep 18, 2011 Renee rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Linda Robinson
Sep 17, 2011 Linda Robinson rated it it was amazing
Michigan rivers, a girl who shows as much emotion as a river does, and a teak boat with splintery oars. As odd as it is to have a teenaged girl protagonist who doesn't trip or blubber all over herself, it's downright awesome to read a book that portrays the girl all of us Michigan river rats were, or wanted to be. The characters that swirl around Margo are as rich as good river bottom, coppery, flinty and moving along their course without much fuss or interest in what other people are up to. It ...more
Mar 07, 2011 Zinta rated it it was amazing
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 your shoes off, 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 re ...more
Jan 18, 2013 Karyn rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Richard Derus
Jun 03, 2012 Richard Derus rated it really liked it
Shelves: pearl-ruled
This review has been revised and can be found at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud.
Alisa Kester
Jul 13, 2011 Alisa Kester rated it it was ok
I had previously read Campbell's short story collection, and very much liked it, so I was curious how she'd handle a full length work. The answer is, I like how she writes, but I just couldn't connect to her characters. I remember I called her short stories "likable stories about unlikeable people" and that definitely holds true here. There is something just...likeable about her fiction, even when I pretty much dislike every person in them. In Once Upon a River (spoilers ahead) the main characte ...more
Sep 09, 2011 Steve rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels
For no particular reason, I've read several novels lately about young women fending for themselves in rural and remote landscapes — Terese Svoboda's Bohemian Girl, Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, and Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon A River. I don't know if it's coincidence or shifting cultural interests, but I'm glad these books are coming in a genre that's so typically masculine.

Rather than summarize a story that's already been summarized in so many reviews, I'll just say that as with those nov
Jul 26, 2013 Kim rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
This story centers around Margo Crane, a teenage girl with a terribly dysfunctional family.

Margo spent her childhood learning how to hunt from her devoted father and grandfather and her gun becomes her most important possession. When her mother abandons her in the midst of her adolescence and her father is subsequently killed as a result of a family feud, Margo relies on her hunting skills and a host of men to survive on her own. Although the book takes place in the late twentieth century, it i
Aug 09, 2011 Natalie rated it really liked it
Shelves: rumpus-books
Well, I marathon read this book--it's a quick read, full of interesting descriptions of river life, landscape, skinning critters, boating, and bad parents. Okay, mostly one bad parent and a lot of questionable men. This is, in many ways, a typical coming of age story, but is deepened by the way Campbell writes of Margo's connection to the river and the river life. Margo is a complex character--both silent and raging all at once. She is relatively self-sufficient when it comes to many areas of he ...more
switterbug (Betsey)
Sep 21, 2013 switterbug (Betsey) rated it liked it
"The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane's heart."

Odysseus was a legendary and cunning hero on a journey to find home, and lived by his guile. Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter with an epic aim, living by her wits. Siddhartha traveled on a spiritual quest to find himself, and defined the river by its timelessness--always changing, always the same. Now, in Bonnie Jo Campbell's adventure story, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Margo Crane,
Sep 30, 2011 Antje rated it it was amazing
I loved this book, and not just because I got it from a precious friend! But I must admit, something she said ( that I'm similar to Margo) made me read the book very thoroughly!

Margo is a girl who is victimised by several men, raped, treated badly, exploited and for a long time she wanders from one bad relationship(if one wants to call it like that) to the next.
To cope with her experiences she shots - and she is a brilliant shooter! And she loves her rifle... and that was the first time where I
4 1/2 stars. A rather somber literary tale about a 17 year old girl from the backwoods of Michigan, where she lives hunting and fishing amidst her kin who live next to the Stark River. An unfortunate sexual encounter with her uncle leads to tragedy, and she runs off to live on her own down the river a short way, with an inherited teak boat. She's a very independent girl, a dead eye shot, and a bit of a mix between the storied Indian maiden (though she's white), Annie Oakley, and Huck Finn. She m ...more
Apr 26, 2016 Marla rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobooks
I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book. Margo is from a poor family who live by the Stark River in Michigan. Her Mom leaves and her father dies and she sets off on her own on the river. From the way she lets men take advantage of her, you can tell she really didn't learn about boundaries and to protect herself. She is a crack shot with a rifle and can shoot the tip of a cigarette off while it's in a man's mouth. I feel like she is someone who has fallen through the cracks and is just try ...more
Washington Post
Oct 28, 2013 Washington Post rated it it was amazing
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s gritty but tender novel features an unforgettable heroine whose determination to carve out a life on her own in rural Michigan is challenged by nature and some very bad men. The wonder of “Once Upon a River” is how fresh and weathered it seems at the same time. Ardently turning these pages, Ron Charles, who reviewed it for The Post, felt as though he'd been waiting for this book and yet somehow already knew it. It was one of Book World's 10 best books of 2011.

Read Ron's rev
Laura Carter
Oct 09, 2014 Laura Carter rated it did not like it
Shelves: couldn-t-finish
Too much cussing for me and about 1/3 of the way through I realized it was one of those books where everything terrible that could happen to the main character would happen, and it would leave me depressed for days. I don't really care for those type of books. So I'm not going to finish it. Maybe there are people who like this sort of book, and like to walk around depressed, contemplating how everything terrible could happen to one person. I don't. I prefer to imagine that some good things can h ...more
Aug 23, 2011 Bondama rated it it was amazing
When I initially started with GR, I tended to primarily list the books I'd read and loved in 62 years, and, because I loved them, most of them got 5 stars. I've become much more discerning over the past couple of years, but believe me, this book deserves more than 5 stars. I hope this one gets the Booker-Mann, the Pulitzer, or some sort of astonishing award - it's that good.

This is a rare jewel. It's a story that American writers seem to be particularly good at: books that convey a strong sense
Ann Collette
Aug 18, 2011 Ann Collette rated it it was amazing
I really loved this book, even though reading it was often an unsettling experience.
After her self-centered mother abandons her and her father is shot dead in a tragic musunderstanding, sixteen year old Margo Crawford takes off on her own. Born and reared by the Stark River in rural Michigan, the quiet and lovely girl has it in mind to find her mother, while living off the bounty of river she feels such a part of. A true child of nature, Margo sees herself as an extension of the river and can't
Apr 30, 2012 Jenna rated it really liked it
Growing up on a river is a completely distinctive type of childhood that is difficult to describe to even the closest friends and lovers. I was personally lucky enough to have lived almost two decades alongside the "Mighty Niagara", and can still feel the water's force and movement rushing relentlessly past my body and legs, swimming at nearly full force just to stay in one place. I have rowboated, motorboated, kayaked, sailed, jetskied, waterskied, swam, ice-skated, fished, tubed, and ice berg ...more
Ron Charles
Dec 04, 2013 Ron Charles rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Nov 05, 2011 Rose rated it it was amazing
Would it be enough to say, "This is a superb book. READ IT"? Because the reviews of this book made me want to NOT read it, but somehow the book lured me anyway. Essentially it's the story of a teen-age girl who is raped and abandoned and runs away from home to live by her wits -- her rifle, her ability to skin animals and catch fish and build fires, her knowledge of nature's power and its gifts. Mostly people who live by their wits in books lie and steal and eat out of dumpsters. This young girl ...more
Jul 14, 2011 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
This brutal, brilliant study of survival reads like a combination of Huckleberry Finn,My Side of the Mountain and 33 Snowfish. Sixteen year old Margo, living wild on the river in rural Michigan after being raped by her uncle and deserted by her mother, has no desire to go to school or hold a job. She just wants to be left alone to live a simple life of hunting, sleeping, eating and watching the water. As alert and comfortable in her skin as the deer she hunts, Margo both fights and pairs up with ...more
Tess Malone
Jul 10, 2011 Tess Malone rated it really liked it
I took a course on American Coming of Age novels this past semester and never once did I encounter a teenage girl protagonist like Margo Crane. Strong-willed, resilient, sexually liberated, independent, a sharp shooter, and all with a fierce survival instinct intact, there is no girl heroine in the bildungsroman canon that even looks like Margo. Campbell has created an entirely unique character even if she falls into the same traps all teenage girls succumb to. She is both relatable and utterly ...more
May 25, 2012 Katie rated it liked it
This is a book about a teenage girl in 1980's rural Michigan who is raised alongside a river and doesn't really have much of a family. Unpleasant events occur, and she ends up a drifter, living on the river, shooting animals for food, and both being attracted to and repelled by other people.

I can't decide how I felt about this book. Some parts I found mesmerizing, some boring. In some ways I liked trying to get inside her head and could relate to her, and in others I really couldn't (even if I
Jul 29, 2011 Eileen rated it really liked it
This is an advance reader copy that I won through Goodreads Giveaways. It is the first book I've read by this author, but, I don't think it will be the last! Campbell presents an excellent character study through Once Upon a River. Her writing is taut and effective, and I think she does a great job in presenting Margot Crane, the 16 year old protagonist of her story, as a complicated combination of austere self-sufficiency and razor sharp naturalist intelligence alongside a simultaneously naive ...more
Nov 07, 2011 Elizabeth rated it liked it
Recommends it for: kick-ass girls in abusive relationships
Shelves: 2011
This book confused me. I highly enjoyed the writing the style. I highly enjoyed the idea of a poor, teenage river rat girl in small town, feudal Michigan having to fend for her own by using the river, the land and her intuition. It's all very Hunger Games, Winter's Bone. Though in those books, the heroines' are using strength, cunning and a variety of sources to make it. Not so much here.

Through complicated circumstances, beautiful, teenage, Margaret Louise aka Margo, ends up fending for herself
Jan 18, 2014 Kevin rated it liked it
This was a book I enjoyed more the longer it went on. At first I found it difficult to warm to Margo, and some of the choices she makes. But towards the end I was rooting for a happy ending. This felt very much like a companion piece to Willy Vlautin's Lean On Pete, a similarly plaintive tale of a boys daily struggles for food, warmth, shelter and love, following the death of a less than perfect father, and absence of a self centered mother. This would make a great book club read, as there are m ...more
Feb 09, 2012 Jennifer rated it did not like it
This book is the epitome of what I do not like about contemporary literature. Lots of dreadful people doing positively horrible things to each other. I guess it's supposed to be brilliant because the main character is a woman who behaves a particularly brutish, violent way regularly. (In fairness, she is usually acting in self defense, and she doesn't have a lot of other options.) No one in the this book ever aspires to be better or seek for more than the rotten, violent, disgusting world they i ...more
Diane S ☔
Jul 25, 2011 Diane S ☔ rated it liked it
3 1/2 There were many things I liked about this novel, her descriptions of all the animals and plants along the river were wonderful, the 16 yr. old character's love for the river and the many characters she meets living along the river. Yet I felt a disconnect from her, it was like she was watching herself experience things but not really taking part or something like that. I did, however, love the ending. It was very fitting and one of the best endings of the books I have read lately.
Apr 27, 2014 Jake rated it really liked it
A standard question asked each month by the leader of the book club I attend is, "Would you recommend this book to other people?" An equivocator at heart, I am inclined to recommend most books--albeit with disclaimers. So it goes with Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River.

In general, I recommend this rugged river story about the struggles of a teenage girl who sets out on her own, enduring hardship on the Stark and Kalamazoo Rivers of Michigan. For lovers of rich scenic description, who relish
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Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of the National Book Award finalist American Salvage, Women & Other Animals, and the novels Q Road and Once Upon a River. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the AWP Award for Short Fiction, and Southern Review’s 2008 Eudora Welty Prize for “The Inventor, 1972,” which is included in American Salvage. Her work has appeared in Southern Review, Kenyon Review, a ...more
More about Bonnie Jo Campbell...

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“She hoped Smoke was wrong about people being unknowable. She hoped that she could crack herself open like a nut and know herself, at least. Then she'd be able to start figuring out everybody else.” 3 likes
“The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane's heart.” 3 likes
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