Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon a River is a beautiful book. The story is not joyful, let me say that right off. But it’s beautifully wrought, and in fact, when I finished it and stepped back and viewed it as a whole, I decided that the story has a certain beauty, too. A sad beauty, but a beauty that’s true to life.

This is the story of Margo. She grows up in a little town on the Stark River in Michigan, hunting, fishing, and living and breathing the river. She is close to her grandfather, and lives in the outdoors; school and social situations are difficult for her. She’s a very skilled outdoorswoman, and an especially good shot; Annie Oakley is her hero. Bad things happen. Margo’s mother leaves, and as her situation further deteriorates, she takes off upstream in the boat her grandfather gave her to look for her mother. Margo lives off the land and the river, mostly. She makes a few alliances but they all fall apart. People and relationships are not as reliable as the river and the outdoor world in which she feels safe and comfortable. More bad things happen. She grows up some, learns about people, and learns more about the natural world. She moves upstream and downstream, learns how to survive with her hands, a few tools, and her skills, along the lines again of Annie Oakley (she will eventually own two biographies, among her few prized possessions).

This story is painful in more than a few spots. Plenty of bad things happen, including several rapes and quite a bit of death. There’s no shortage of young people having sex, to which your reactions may vary. (Consensual? In itself a “bad thing”?) You will cringe. But like many books that are both sad and realistic, the cringing might be worth it. Margo’s story actually looks skyward, hopefully, at the end. She finds and makes some good things, too.

Campbell has full grasp of metaphor. The river flows on, and Margo learns its rhythms, and how to assert herself while following its current. She finds the river to be a more constant (if not predictable) force than human nature. Campbell has full grasp of language, too; she writes beautifully, lyrically, symbolically. In the end it’s a gorgeous book and I recommend it wholeheartedly. So, to recap: bad things happen, but beautifully. It’s a book about life.

5 Responses

  1. […] Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell. Fiction. […]

  2. Thank you so much for this generous and thoughtful review of my book!

  3. […] reminded me of the protagonist of Once Upon a River. Both young women are untameable and live by their own rules on the edge of the civilized world. […]

  4. […] here and less Tennessee Williams. There is also definitely something of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, although the protagonists of the two books are different in many […]

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