Once Upon a River: A Novel

Image of Once Upon a River: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 4, 2012
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

Bonnie Jo Campbell (a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist) takes on tough subjects in her fiction, and this tale of a rebellious wilderness girl in Michigan is no exception.

Though this new novel has been compared to Huckleberry Finn in its mythic odyssey of a youth journeying on a river, that’s about where the analogy ends. More apt is the author’s own comparison of Margo’s life to that of young, rugged Annie Oakley. While Huck is full of innocence, Margo is full of anger seeking revenge, pain suffered from abuse, and an adolescent search for identity. She’s emotionally and sexually abused by men so often that one can only admire her ability again get up off the ground and back into her river boat.

It’s dark territory here, not filled with humor or much compassion until the end, and its chief thematic content seems to be “Live your own life and forget about being normal.” Instead of floating downriver like Huck with trusted friend Jim on the great Mississippi, Margo must row upriver alone and against the current on the Stark and Kalamazoo Rivers.

As in her award winning short story collection, American Salvage (2009), Ms. Campbell’s intent is to reveal the hard life of social outsiders, while also celebrating their small ways of survival. She is more adept at handling the short story form with this limited content, and her novel often rambles and stalls, as does Margo in her search for her lost mother and self. One can accept such ambivalence in the character but not in the narrative structure. It’s a long river with back tracking and little to go on; too often we wander in the mud and weeds.

To sustain the reader and give validity to the storytelling the author provides great sensuous detail, as in this account on the river: “She had never made love with a man outdoors. The wind gave them something, as did the water flowing past, and every creature that crept or scurried on the ground, or flew in the air nearby or swam or splashed in the river passed some energy to them. After a while, the river itself seemed to creep up over its bank to flow around them. The current pushed them more deeply into each other.” While the river and Nature in general offer a main character and symbol for the book, it is too often brought in to be hunted, killed, and skinned by our anti-heroine.

Empathy for our young wilderness girl turned woman is slow in coming. Her compassion rises ever so slowly, over the course of 300 pages, appearing only in the final chapters. While one does come to care for young Margo, our anti-heroine, her character often seems inconsistent, frequently changing like the wind and the river. She jumps from being a near mute isolate to one who can discourse on nature and wilderness survival methods to one who boldly assaults men and nature. Her native intelligence is amorphous and seems too flexible, and yet Ms. Campbell is an assured and skilled writer, adept at description and dialogue.

One way or another, Bonnie Jo Campbell, brings us into the challenging world of wilderness and youth. The contemporary journey proves both provoking and rewarding.