Joanne Zienty's Reviews > Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
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's review
Jun 19, 2012

really liked it
Read from June 19 to 27, 2012

Plenty of reviewers before me have compared Margo Crane, the sharp-shooting, boat-wrangling heroine of this novel, to Huck Finn. She compares herself to Annie Oakley, a woman who made her mark (literally and figuratively) in a man’s world by doing what she loved to the best of her ability. But I found Margo to be a complete original: a beautiful teenage girl who is determined to find her own way of living in the world. After her languid and unhappy mother leaves the family home, she and her father try to make peace with the life they have on the Stark River in late ‘70s Michigan, living in the shadow of their more well-to-do relatives on the other shore. It’s a small, constricted life, but Margo finds freedom in learning to master a rifle. But after her father is murdered, she packs her few belongings into the beloved teak boat that she inherited from her grandfather and sets out ostensibly to find her mother. Margo’s initial concerns are material: food, guns, moving her boat from one place to another, finding shelter. Because she has nothing, Margo must rely upon the kindness of strangers. All are male and only some are reliable. But the journey is really about finding herself and learning to live with the consequences of one’s actions. Campbell’s writing, like Margo’s shots, hits the mark every time. It’s beautiful and evocative of a place and time, bringing the reader along to a world that’s familiar and strange at once.

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