Ann Collette's Reviews > Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
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Aug 18, 11

Read in August, 2011

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 imagine a life away from it. Though a rape victim, sex for her is very much a part of nature which is why she can turn her mind away from the wrong done to her by a once loved uncle with relative ease. As she makes her way down the river, she falls in with a much older man, and a series of exploitative relationships with men begins, not to mention another rape. On the surface, Margo seems to take it all in stride but just like her beloved river, a lot is going on underneath her placid surface. What makes Margo such a fascinating character is that she doesn't act like the average sixteen year old; she's never giggly or giddy but is instead, silent and observing, trying to put together a vision for life that suits her, while grappling with everyone else's idea of what she ought to be and her own need for love. Margo is both incredibly mature yet emotionally lost, even underdeveloped for her age. She idolizes Annie Oakley and works at perfecting her own natural talent as a sharpshooter. She has no qualms about killing, skining, and cooking what she eats. Totally in touch with her sexuality, she enjoys that aspect of her relationship with men, so much so that she often lets that part dictate her actions, and not always to her benefit. By the time she's finally reunited with her mother, two years have passed and she's pregnant with a child she's not sure she wants. But her experiences on both the river she grew up alongside of and the new one she finds herself living on towards the end of the book have finally come together, forming a very individual and personalized view of life. Another male character calls her a "throwback," meaning to another time when men were self sufficient and knew what they wanted out of life. But I saw Margo as a throwback to a kind of fictionalized female character one doesn't come across too often in fiction anymore, and that's a completely believable, unique character whose actions, though they may make you feel uncomfortable at times, are those of a fully realized woman, one dependent only on herself, living life on her terms, exactly the way she wants to. The very thing that made me so uncomfortable about this book -- Margo's exploitation by men -- is what she (or should I say, the very talented author)ends up using to shape her into a fully realized woman who's strong enough to live life the wya SHE wants, someone to whom romanticism, sentimentality and education obtained through books is so superfluous as to be non existent. Strong, confident, odd, and with a depth of self understanding few ever attain, she's unforgettable. I'd love it if one day the author decided to revist her, say twenty years after the point where this book leaves off...
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