Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell, W.W. Norton and Company, 2011
This is the book I've been waiting for all summer. I've been dying to read it ever since reading Ron Charles' amazing review in the Washington Post. So I put in a hold request at the library and waited.... and waited.... In the meantime I caught up on Campbell's short story collection American Salvage (reviewed here), which I'd also been wanting to read for ages, and I'm so glad I read it first.
Once Upon a River returns us to the scene of "Family Reunion," a stunning short story, and my very favorite in American Salvage. The story and the novel tell the powerful tale of Margo, a teenage girl growing up on a river in Michigan. She lives only with her father, her mother has left them. She doesn't talk much. She's a helluva shot. She had been very close to her extended family just across the river until her uncle cornered and raped her at a holiday get-together. Her gun becomes her way of coping with her subsequent confusion and anger: she shoots targets and hunts more deer than the law allows. Although forbidden to visit them again, she sneaks over to spy on the family's Thanksgiving dinner, and in a moment of serendipity and sudden clarity, she acts decisively to send the uncle a clear message about his behavior.
The short story leaves us there, and when I read it, it left me absolutely wanting to read more about Margo; Once Upon a River tells this story, and continues with everything that follows, going on to reveal the life-changing consequences of Margo's actions, and her subsequent journey along the river to find her mother and ultimately herself. Margo is a wonderfully different and absolutely compelling heroine - she is unbelievably tough, and at the same time heartbreakingly vulnerable. She knows how to survive outdoors- hunting, fishing, foraging - and she feels trapped anywhere else. I marvelled at how capable this young woman is, and at the thorough details the author includes to illustrate Margo's skills (I know far more about skinning animals than I ever thought I would). Yet because she is still so young and has grown up so isolated from others, she can also be clueless and impulsive.
Margot connects up with a series of men along the way (some heads will shake here, but read on) some for better and some for much, much worse, but each relationship or interaction changes Margo in a different way and I thought Campbell captured something remarkable in each one:
Margo was getting an idea that ....love was different than she'd expected, that it was something ordinary.... if you knew the feel of his soft hair and knew how he felt in his skin when you touched him, if you listened to every word a man spoke, his truth and his lies, then you couldn't help but love him.Margo is a loner, and as such much of the book is narration rather than dialogue. I found the narration outstanding and the dialogue occasionally not quite as stellar, but overall it was a book I loved start to finish and had a hard time putting down. Most of all, I found that while Campbell in no way glorified the challenges of life along a rural river or Margo's extremely hard existence, she did make me feel the pull that the river had on Margo. I am tempted to go read it again, one more time, before I take it back to the library - and then go buy a copy to keep on the shelf.