Saturday, July 30, 2011

Once Upon a River

By Bonnie Jo Campbell
New York, W.W. Norton, 2011
348 pages     Fiction

It is intriguing that Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell is showing up on lists of summer reading books, such as the reading list in Newsweek Magazine, because it is anything but a beach bag, throw-away book. It is intense, thought-provoking, maddening, and (in the words of the New York Times reviewer) an “excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.”

Margo Crane is a teenager living on the banks of the Stark River in Michigan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Stark flows into the Kalamazoo River which flows into Lake Michigan. The Kalamazoo River is very real, but the Stark is the creation of the author. Margo is one of the most interesting characters that I have encountered in the eighteen months that I have been blogging. She is a wild young woman, “raised by wolves,” as one of the characters in the book notes. A sharpshooter, fisherman, and an expert at finding, skinning, tanning, and cooking wildlife, Margo is forced (perhaps she really desires) to live off the land and the river.

The reader follows Margo’s adventures and misadventures on the river over the course of two or three years, but this is not an adventure story; it is more elemental and symbolic than that. In many ways, Margo is the river. We get an early glimpse of that: “When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive; she felt the Stark River move inside her.” She cannot bear to be apart from the river because it is always there, the one constant in her life. Abandoned by her mother and orphaned by a murdered father, Margo is used and abused by the men she encounters, but she also uses them for shelter and security. At one point she finds her wayward mother, but she is always compelled to return to the river. One of the revealing lines in the book explains her relationship to people and the river: “She pushed thoughts of her mother into the quietest place within herself, until she was inside the sound of leaves rustling and the wind-sound of the moving surface of the river.” Also: “her body had absorbed the habit of sadness, so that sadness flowed all through her and became a natural part of her movements.”

At one point Margo says, “I’ve been trying to figure out how to live,” and that really sums up the intent of the author. Throughout the many disastrous events that confront her, she remains pure in her goal to be at one with the river and true to her goal to be independent and free. She realizes that she “had let herself become a person who was no longer connected to other people. She comforted herself with knowing that she did not carry with her a rage like Billy’s or anger like her father’s. Either would have weighed her down more than her loaded pack.”

The books of Bonnie Jo Campbell came to me on the suggestion of a book club member to read her short story collection, American Salvage, which I then read and reviewed in January 2010. The character of Margo grew out of a couple of her stories in that book. That book was short-listed for the National Book Award in 2009. Her characters in those stories are similar to the characters that appear in Once Upon a River—the lower-middle class white working people of Southwest Michigan. Now that I know who Bonnie Jo Campbell is, I see her at every book event I attend in Kalamazoo.

A friend and I read the book at the same time and spent an hour walking on a path alongside the river. Although Patricia liked the book, she felt the ending was “just too wrapped up with pretty ribbons.” I didn’t feel that way. I really hoped to see what was going to happen next. The reviewer in the Los Angeles Times agreed: “She must learn to tame some of that wildness out of her and live in the company of people without being used by them.” My friend observed that she envisioned a young Jody Foster as she read about Margo, certainly for her fierceness and intensity.

I do have to remind readers that Once Upon a River is not a regional book; it has universal themes and universal characters. Most of us know people like the characters who encounter Margo, although I can affirm that very few of us have ever met Margo—one of the most original characters to emerge in recent fiction.

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website:

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