Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Bonnie Jo Campbell
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“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 the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices.”
Thoughts: Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River is a poignant coming-of-age story without the normal trappings of such stories. Margo Crane is very much a fish out of water, as the lone child in a very adult world. She struggles to make sense of the adults around her while finding peace and understanding of a world gone upside-down.
The one constant in Margo’s life is the Stark River, and her love for that constant flows much like the words over the page. Both meander, sometimes slowly, sometimes more rapidly, but always with a sense of purpose. It is an effective form of storytelling, as the plot never bogs down, as it so easily could. Rather, everything Margo faces in her search for her mother has its own sense of importance because it just one more stop along a journey.
Margo Crane is a conundrum. She is wise beyond her years in so many things, but the mistakes she makes, her longings and some of her hopes are very childlike. She is a girl who is forced to grow up too fast and is now struggling to adjust. The reader’s heart bleeds for some of the situations in which she finds herself. Ms. Campbell does not mince words or gloss over the rougher portions of Margo’s story, and the reader is an uncomfortably close witness to some horrific scenes. Still, Margo never gives up nor gives way to despair, as it would be so easy for her to do. She remains steadfast in her resoluteness and draws the reader’s admiration as a result.
There is a timelessness to Once Upon a River that adds to the overall story. Even in today’s world of constant connection, the isolation Margo feels is still plausible, and in fact, all too probable. Just because one is constantly connected to thousands of others through the Internet and social media does not mean that one is not alone. Margo exemplifies this in her journey.
Once Upon a River is a painful novel to read. Margo’s story is filled with painful and very difficult experiences for one so young. Yet, the reader walks away from the novel with a feeling of hope.Margo, in all of her naivety and desperation, is able to find a sense of happiness and belonging by remaining true to herself. The journey may be frightful, but she never makes the same mistake twice. Many an adult could stand to learn from Margo Crane.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Erin Lovett from W.W. Norton & Company for my review copy!