Once Upon a River (Review)

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Once Upon a River
Bonnie Jo Campbell, 1211
348 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
June, 2012

Margo Crane, the wonderful young heroine of Once Upon a River, is a throwback to the 19th century: she's Huck Finn in girls clothing (actually, boy's clothing, too) ... and Annie Oakley in jeans and a hoodie. She's resourceful—a crack shooter who kills, guts, skins, and cleans, her own food.

She's on the river...and on the run.

Margo grew up on the Stark, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, swimming, playing, and fishing with a large clan of cousins. But after her mother lights out for dryer ground and her father dies in a violent accident, Margo takes off in a teak boat. Escaping social services, she rows upstream against the current to find her mother.

An uncanny, natural beauty, Margo finds refuge from cold and loneliness with men, who take her in, protect her and sometimes abuse her. But she's a child of nature, a "river nymph," who can't be pinned down to anyone's claim or expectations for her. "You can't get ahead in this world if you don't finish school," one of the men says to her. "I don't want to get ahead. What's so great about getting ahead?" she responds.

Margo is of the water—part of its flow, not just figuratively but literally. When swimming, she "swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move insider her." Some readers will find Margo too passive, remote from her own experiences, yet like the river, she is sometimes passive, sometimes wild, following the course set out for her and overflowing when necessary.

We see the world—both its purity and corruption—through her eyes. Those large, uncanny eyes watch; they stare unsparingly like the great blue herons she loves (her last name, after all, is Crane). She neither judges nor emotes, but we are free to do both because of what she shows us.

Once Upon the River is a lushly written coming-of-age story, rich in description of setting and character. There is danger and safety on the river, joy and disappointment in Margo's journey. She learns to negotiate her way through it all, and in the process gains wisdom and understanding of her place. She is one of America's newest, most engaging literary heroines.

Read this book and have wonderful discussions regarding decisions made by characters and the play of nature on those decisions.

See our Reading Guide for Once Upon a River.

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