Elizabeth's Reviews > Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
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Aug 22, 11

bookshelves: giveaways, books-we-own
Read from August 05 to 22, 2011

I received this book for free from Goodreads Giveaways.

This book tells of a teenage heroine who, after her father's death, travels alone to find her mother. The prose is very well-written, containing many vivid characters who overcome great odds, and the text, in some places, even feels like poetry. The author makes great use of imagery; some scenes (I'm thinking particularly of the Margo's final swim in the river) are beautifully written and beautiful to imagine.

That said, I had a dreadful time getting through this book. This is because the book focuses on the characters (who then drive the plot), and I neither understand nor like the characters. Early in the book, for example, Margo is raped; she makes excuses for her rapist and resists her family's efforts to call the police or even to comfort her. I know that traumatic experiences can have difficult psychological effects on victims, but although Margo is the main character, I could not get into her head enough to understand her difficulties. She is also a great shot with a rifle, and she enjoys hunting. Good for her: it's a sport, it's a way to find food, it involves something she's good at, and it represents her own independence. I can understand why she likes shooting. I cannot, however, understand, that sometimes she just has the desire to kill something. Margo repeatedly violates the terms of her hunting license by killing more deer than is legal, even when she doesn't need the food, and even when nonliving targets are available. I don't understand why she would risk the right to do something she loves (her license could be revoked) for something so trivial as a moment's impulse, not to mention the potential for a fine (which her father, who turned his life around just to give her a good home, would not be able pay). Despite her father's protests, she does not stop, nor does she seem to feel remorse for breaking the law. I also don't understand the sudden compulsion to kill an animal just because she sees it. She seems to follow the credo that might makes right, and she behaves as though her skill gives her some kind of entitlement. When her father is murdered, she lies to the police to protect the killer because she "did not want Billy imprisoned for murder. She wanted to deal with Billy herself . . ." It was dreadful trying to plow through a book when I neither like nor understand the heroine (or any character, for that matter), and finally, mercifully, I wound up skimming in many places.

It's hard to call the book bad -- because it is well written, and because the plot's conclusion is so satisfying. The book does not have a frustrating non-ending, but it still manages to leave much open for new possibilities for Margo. Moreover, the final portion of the book introduces a really good character, one who is a horrible person, but still great fun to read about.

This book was an experience, to say the least. (And I bet that by the end of this really long review, if you've read this far, you're wishing that I had said the least.) Enjoyment-wise, I'd give it two stars. In terms of the quality, it would get three or four.
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