ONCE UPON A RIVER by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Book Quote:

“The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (JUL 18, 2011)

Odysseus was a legendary and cunning hero on a journey to find home, and lived by his guile. Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter with an epic aim, living by her wits. Siddhartha traveled on a spiritual quest to find himself, and defined the river by its timelessness—always changing, always the same. Now, in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s adventure story, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, gutsy, feisty survivor who manifests a flawed blend of all three heroes, who lives once and inexorably upon a river.

Raised on the Stark River by throwback hicks (some who are rich) in rural Murrayville, Michigan, Margo can shoot and skin a buck, fish like Papa Hemingway, and fire a bullet clean through a rabbit’s eye. She’s a free spirit, a river sprite, a dog lover, an oarswoman and a woodcutter. Her heroine is Annie Oakley, a renowned figure that she hopes to embody.

A series of incidents in Margo’s young life cause her to run away. Her beloved grandfather dies, and her mother—who never adapted to the river life—abandons the family. At fifteen, Margo is raped by her Uncle Cal, but is more perplexed than traumatized when it happens.

“Rape sounded like a quick and violent act, like making a person empty her wallet at the point of a knife, like shooting someone or stealing a TV. What Cal had done was gentler, more personal, like passing a virus.”

It takes a year for Margo to comprehend that she was violated; circumstances eventually culminate in a baroque twist on a Mexican standoff–with one dead body, one tip-shot pecker, and one pissed off family. She quits school, grabs her Marlin .22, boards her rowboat, and heads up river with her mother’s address found under her father’s bed. She is determined to reunite with her mother and forge a new life.

Margo likes to hear the water rustle against the rocks; sleep under a canopy of stars; watch the pink dawn of the sky; listen to whip-poor-wills call from the trees; and count blue herons as they wade in the river. But her journey is tangled by an undertow of complications, a ripple effect of the sand and silt and muddiness she brought with her from Murrayville and continues to accumulate. Margo has a ripe sexuality, a flood of pheromones and hormones coursing through the channels of her body like a tidal wave. As she paddles upstream, she bounces from one man to the next, (lying about her age), leaving a wake of misadventures at each stop, with minimal contemplation between disasters. With each imbroglio, she unwittingly tugs at the past, pulling it into the present and future, like floating debris that follows along.

The reader is enticed to root for Margo, but I was turned off by her attraction to losers and drunks and skeptical of extremes in her nature. The commando girl power was redundant—she was a superwoman of courage and resolve, and when it was favorable, she would vulnerably depend on the kindness of strangers, who appeared at convenient times. She also inflicts some irreparable damage to a menacing one-eye-blind man from the recent past—his brute strength was reminiscent of the Cyclops in the Odyssey–and then wipes her hands of it with too much nonchalance.

The adventures lack variety or surprise–Margo’s marvel trick shots often gild the lily, and whatever a grown man can do, she can do better. Her noble relationship with Smoke, an elderly, smelly, chain-smoking, wheelchair-bound hermit with emphysema, is supposed to be the pinnacle of the story, but it reeked of authorial manipulation. Margos’ beneficence is obviously meant to offset her other transgressions, which only calls attention to the incredulity of this relationship. When she climbs in bed (platonically) and sleeps with Smoke as an act of virtuous love, it came off as orchestrated. Smoke ultimately became a plot/story device, rewarding Margo with the right things at the right time.

Despite the obvious flaws, Campbell’s story is a page-turner. Her prose is warm, rollicking, and natural. She conveys a spiritual power to the river and surrounding environs, massaging the narrative with the raw power of nature. Margo is earthy, plucky, and engaging, a passionate heroine with a physical, sensual nature and double-barrel gaze. The loose ends in this story imply that a series is in the works, or a follow-up novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 13 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company (July 5, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Bonnie Jo Campbell
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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July 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, US Midwest, Wild West, y Award Winning Author

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