Ellen's Reviews > Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
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Jun 30, 12


I started this book three times and put it aside three times before getting into it. The first fifty pages or so set up a world I wasn't sure I wanted to be a part of -- our heroine is raped, watches her father get shot, shoots her rapist in the crotch and takes off to forage for herself in rural Michigan. In between killing and gutting animals to survive, she hooks up with various characters along the river and sleeps with all of them before moving on, for one reason or another, to the next hideout. Did I mention she was sixteen?

Then I reread some of the reviews of this book. I felt as though I needed to give it more of a chance because it's set in an area of Michigan that I love, and because the writer is an academic (like me) whose work is highly reviewed. I'm glad I did. Although I never became truly comfortable with the setting or the characters, I came to understand why Campbell was writing about them. I'm also glad that she chose to present the story with an almost emotionless objectivity, warts and all. No character along the river is without flaw, including Margo herself. I marveled at how all of these people could survive with minimal contact with the "outside world" -- although there is occasional talk about hunting licenses and post office boxes, it doesn't seem to matter to any of the authorities that a 16-year-old girl could be living alone on the river within only a few miles of Kalamazoo. Margo is truly on her own. She makes her own mistakes, learns from them or doesn't, and life goes on.

One of the most poignant scenes in the book involves Margo's arrival at her mother's house - her original destination when her father died, even though her mother told her that it "wasn't the right time." This scene is set in what most of us would call civilization -- a nice house with TV and a remote control, a hot shower, soft towels and plenty of food in the refrigerator. Even given Margo's mother's flaws ("you can stay here until Roger gets back on Friday"), most of us would think it tempting to stay within this world rather than go back to the river. But back Margo goes.

Ultimately, it was satisfying to read a book about an odyssey that involved a flawed female character, a book about rural America that wasn't set in the south or the wild wild west, and a book that, like the river, finds its own path.
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