Thursday, September 1, 2011

Once Upon A River - Bonnie Jo Campbell

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 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.

Happy reading!


  1. I'm glad this book lived up to your expectations - sometimes when I really look up to a book I overhype it a bit in my own mind.

    It sounds like an interesting read, I'll keep an eye out for it.

  2. Know exactly what you mean - it surprised me in many ways, but I think that's a good thing.

  3. oh, it's wonderful when you love a book that much! :-)

  4. Wow, Jennifer...this one sounds like one of those 'go out and purchase/borrow immediately, then devour in one sitting' types of reads. One of my literary weaknesses is for compelling, superbly-crafted female protagonists, so Margo's journey sounds fascinating to me. Something about the way you've described her puts me in mind of the gritty young female lead character from Daniel Woodrell's 'Winter's Bone'.

    Would you recommend reading 'Family Reunion' beforehand, or diving headlong into 'Once Upon A River'? (Oh, and I endorse Marie's statement, really is wonderful when you love a book that much, isn't it?)

  5. Marie, thanks isn't it? Shivanee... I really do think you would like this character. hmmm you don't need to read the short story at all to read the novel - but you are like me in that you will probably want to read both - to enjoy and consider the short story as a stand alone (it is a superb short story), to enjoy the beauty of the novel, and to writer-nerdily (;D) compare the two.

  6. Normally I would be dubious about a book length take on something from a short story but this sounds pretty marvelous. Your enthusiasm is convincing -- I'm adding this to my TBR.

  7. Would absolutely love to know what you think of it if you read either the short story (thought it was the best one in the collection so you could even read just that) and/or the novel.

  8. How interesting that the novel builds on a previously published short story! I'm glad you finally got your hands on this one. I've not heard of the novel, but I'm intrigued by your review.

  9. Does one need to read the short story before reading the novel? I'd be afraid to miss something (even something as seemingly small as characterization and world-building) by not reading Campbell's earlier work...

  10. No, not at all, and so sorry if this gave that impression. The novel includes everything in the short story and can be read entirely on its own. (I liked reading both just because I am a little nerdy that way ;D ).


Thanks for visiting - thoughts welcome.