Bonnie Jo Campbell has created an unforgettable heroine in sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, a beauty whose unflinching gaze and uncanny ability with a rifle have not made her life any easier. After the violent death of her father, in which she is complicit, Margo takes to the Stark River in her boat, with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley, in search of her vanished mother.
But the river, Margo's childhood paradise, is a dangerous place for a young woman traveling alone, and she must be strong to survive, using her knowledge of the natural world and her ability to look unsparingly into the hearts of those around her. Her river odyssey through rural Michigan becomes a defining journey, one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to ask herself what price she is willing to pay for her choices.
While Once upon a River does occasionally come close to leaning on clichés, it also boasts a narrative momentum and attention to nature that complements those patches of well-worn familiarity. In fact, reading this novel often feels like cozying up with a comfortable quilt, one with a few burrs sticking out just to keep things interesting. (Reviewed by Marnie Colton).
With all the fixings of a Johnny Cash song - love, loss, redemption - Campbell captures these Michiganders and their earthy, brutal paradise in tales rich with insight and well worth the trip.
...Campbell juxtaposes spare prose with lush details in this stark chronicle of hardship and splendor... and though the novel occasionally flags under the crushing burden of Margo's unremitting ill fortune, it is, finally, a fine and sobering story...
Starred Review. A truthful and deeply human story that pulls us in and won't let go. Readers looking for superior fiction are in for an uplifting, first-rate story.
Starred Review. A glorious novel destined to entrance and provoke.
New York Times Book Review
An excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.
This is a splendid story of survival in extremis, with a searingly original heroine.
Jaimy Gordon, National Book Award winner
American fiction waited a long time for Bonnie Jo Campbell to come along. A lot of us, not only women, were looking for a fictional heroine who would be deeply good, brave as a wolverine, never a cry baby, as able as Sacagawea, with a strong and unapologetic sexuality. We wanted to feel her roots in some ancient story, we wanted Diana the huntress, but not her virginity; we wanted a real human girl who we could believe had been suckled by bears, or wolves. To give us heroines like this, the god finally brought us Bonnie Jo Campbell, one of our most important and necessary writers, and Margo Crane, the central character of Once Upon A River, an outcast, feral beauty who can shoot like Annie Oakley, is her most poignant and mythic creation so far.
At various points throughout Once Upon a River, Margo forages for vegetables, traps muskrats and raccoons, pinpoints the change in seasons by minutely observing foliage, chops firewood, whitewashes her boat, skins fish, and shoots deer. While the men all praise her aim with a rifle and her self-reliance, she is not as much of an anomaly as they might think; Margo is actually an unwitting adherent to the "back to the land" movement that began in the 1960s and has recently enjoyed an upsurge in popularity in various forms (homesteading, permaculture, off-the-grid, the locavore movement).
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