Once Upon a River (Campbell)

Once Upon a River 
Bonnie Jo Campbell, 2011
W.W. Norton & Co.
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780393079890

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—c. 1962
Where—Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA
Education—B.A., University of Chicago; M.A., M.F.A., 
   Western Michigan State University
Awards—Pushcart Prize; Associated Writing Programs
   Award for Short Fiction; Eudora Welty Prize
Currently—lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan

Bonnie Jo Campbell is an American novelist and short story writer.

Campbell attended received an B.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1984. From Western Michigan University, she received an MA in mathematics in 1995 and an MFA in creative writing in 1998. She has traveled with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and has organized adventure bicycle tours in Eastern Europe and Russia.

She was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in fiction for her short-story collection American Salvage, which the Kansas City Star also named a Top Six Book of 2009. American Salvage, was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. She has won a Pushcart Prize for her story “The Smallest Man in the World,” the 1998 Associated Writing Programs Award for short fiction (for Women & Other Animals), and the 2009 Eudora Welty Prize from Southern Review for “The Inventor, 1972.”

Her stories and essays have also appeared in Ontario Review, Story, Kenyon Review, Witness, Alaska Quarterly Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, and Utne Reader. In 1999, her story “Shifting Gears” was the official story of the Detroit Automobile Dealers' Association Show. 

Campbell lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, Christopher Magson and teaches fiction at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, in the low-residency MFA program. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
The river is no paradise, with factories like the one founded by Margo’s beloved grandfather and run by her uncle polluting both the water and the air. Margo, though, young, innocent and in danger, accepts that this fallen world is hers. She defends her right to make her own decisions, and even when they are bad decisions Campbell is clear they are the only ones she could make.... [Campbell's novel is] an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.
Jane Smiley - New York Times Book Review

For many chapters this is a sad, harrowing story, but Campbell doesn’t leave us there. Margo’s hushed voice is so pure, her spirit so indomitable, that you’ll yearn for her to find the freedom she craves, along with a stretch of clean water. Once Upon a River makes you realize with a stab of regret just how cramped and homogeneous our lives and our expectations of others are. I hope Margo’s out there somewhere skinning a catfish and cooking it on a hickory stick. It’s a hard life, to be sure, but this novel is a celebration of that possibility and its brutal costs.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

If this sounds a bit like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the comparison is, perhaps, inevitable: Put a teenager on a river, and that's what you get. Yet Campbell has something less resolved in mind here, not a picaresque journey, not even a moral awakening, but a coming-of-age in the most concrete sense.
David Ulin - Los Angeles Times

Once Upon a River, Campbell’s second novel, picks up where American Salvage left off. But...this is a sweeter, more magical note in Campbell’s western Michigan mythology. Set in the late 70s, the deceptively simple premise—a sixteen-year-old girl on a river—draws in the reader. Lush descriptions of western Michigan’s Stark River dominate the opening...and dreamlike prose flows along the banks and down the river.... The concrete details are grounding but made extraordinary by Campbell’s musical syntax.
Josh Cook - Iowa Review

With all the fixings of a Johnny Cash song—love, loss, redemption—Campbell captures these Michiganders and their earthy, brutal paradise in tales rich with insight and well worth the trip.
Natash Clark - Elle

Margo has adventures marked by sameness instead of variety. Essentially similar events recur throughout the novel, sapping it of initial narrative momentum. These include occurrences both major...and comparatively trivial....Campbell could have called the novel "Twice upon a River.
John G. Rodwan, Jr. - OregonLive.com

This second novel by National Book Award finalist Campbell (American Salvage) is set in Murrayville, a rural Michigan town far removed from the modern world. Inhabitants have lived off the Stark River for generations, including 16-year-old Margo Crane's family. She's been taught the best fishing spots and knows the hidden dangers downstream from the Murray Metal Fabricating Plant. Her carefree existence ends when her mother, a depressed alcoholic, leaves town, and Margo is raped by her uncle Cal. Margo's unique revenge leads to her father's death, a tragic event that nevertheless sets her free from being at the mercy of the Murrays. Equipped with ammunition, food, her father's ashes, and a pink envelope with her mother's return address, she takes her father's boat downstream, determined to find her mother. Margo survives by hunting, fishing, and garden pilfering and by distrusting people. Her river odyssey ultimately leads to self-preservation on her terms. Verdict: A truthful and deeply human story that pulls us in and won't let go. Readers looking for superior fiction are in for an uplifting, first-rate story. —Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Margo’s earthy education and the profound complexities of her timeless dilemmas are exquisitely rendered and mesmerizingly suspenseful. A glorious novel destined to entrance and provoke.

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Once Upon a River:

1. How would you describe Margo Crane—what inner qualities enable her to leave home at 16 and survive a journey on the river? As a reader, do you find yourself connecting with her? Or is she too stoic and taciturn to fully engage your emotions? 

2. In what way has her mother's abandonment of her shaped Margo's character? 

3. Margo's initial reaction to her rape is to wonder whether somehow she was at fault. Do you think her response is typical of rape victims? Had you been a friend or family member, what would you tell her?

4. Is Margo responsible for her father's death?

5. How is this a coming of age story? What, by the end, has Margo learned during the course of her adventures? Does she learn anything? Has she grown or matured?

6. What do you make of Margo's sexual experiences? Is she overly compliant? Is her moral compass askew—in other words, is she morally compromised? Or is Margo a sturdy pragmatist, doing what she needs to survive? Or neither? What does the book suggest about moral clarity? Is there a different code of behavior in the wild than in society?

7. What about the men? Does Brian, for instance, have genuine concern for Margo's welfare, or is he merely an opportunist, taking whatever pleasure presents itself? How does Brian leave Margo exposed to the lusts of other men? What do you think of her relationship with Smoke?

8. Has Campbell presented us with stereotypes of men, or has she created them as distinct indviduals revealing a wide variety of behavior? What do you think?

9. In her interaction with Michael, Margo says she was "feeling the same urgency she felt when she had a buck in her sights." Why does Campbell make this connection between sex and violence—what could she be suggesting about how the two human activities are related?

10. Talk about the book's title. What is the thematic significance of the river? What other works can involve a boat or ship and a body of water—ocean or river? What stands behind the metaphor?

11. Do you know the story of Annie Oakley? Why does Margo model herself after Oakley—what is the link between her and Oakley?

12. Margo is on the archetypal quest of a young hero (in this case, heroine). She is in search of her mother. What does the mother represent (young males typically search for fathers)?  What do you think of Margo's mother once she fiinds her? For Margo, was the finding worth the journey?

13. What's to become of Margo? What do you predict for her? What do you wish for her?

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