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‘Once Upon a River’ by Michigan Author Bonnie Jo Campbell – Book Review

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Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell
Once Upon a River by Michigan Author Bonnie Jo Campbell
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Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell
Once Upon a River by Michigan Author Bonnie Jo Campbell

“Once Upon a River” by Michigan author Bonnie Jo Campbell tells the story of Margo Crane, a teenage girl who sets off on the Stark and Kalamazoo River to find her estranged mother after the horrific death of her father, for which she blames herself. Without trustful relatives, Margo sets off on a two-year journey to find her estranged mother. Through her knowledge of the river and land and uncanny ability to shoot, much like her hero Annie Oakley, Margo survives the two years it takes to find her mother.

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I honestly had a hard time reading this novel. I am the type of reader who gets easily caught up in a book and can’t put it down until it is finished, but it took me two weeks to finish this novel. I felt that the author’s representation of Michigander’s during the early 80’s, especially those who lived near the rivers mentioned in the book, lacked dimension.

It seemed that most of the homes near the river and the people that Margo came in contact with were backwoods hillbillies, abusers and rapists, drug dealers and/or convicts. There were only a few exceptions, including a professional man who bought a fixer upper on the river to get away from his corporate world, but whom Margo is forced to leave when she upsets his sense of right and wrong; a traveling Native American scholar who makes a deal with Margo to show him how to live off the land like his ancestors, but ends up sleeping with her and leaving her in the morning; and two older gentlemen who are bitter and suspicious, but genuinely look out for her.

I generally enjoy oddball characters and coming-of-age stories where you can see the characters mature and grow. I did not feel that way with Margo’s character. Without having a limitation or history of abuse to make her character believable, Margo comes across as having some sort of limitation to her emotional/social development. She rarely shows or feels strong emotions, and her choices are made on survival and without much emotional complications. You see this after the many different encounters she faces with the men she meets and the loss of people in her life.

One of the examples that most stood out for me was when she decided not to go through with the abortion, not because of any emotional connection to the baby or moral reasons, but because she simply did not like how the office looked and felt. Margo has a one-track mind, thinking only of survival and how it affects her physically right at that time. She links herself with any person who can offer her something, and although she feels that she cares for some of them, she is mostly driven by primal needs such as eating, drinking, finding shelter, and sex.

I do not think that the author means for her to come across as having any developmental limitations, but rather that she’s a rough nature girl who enjoys the simple life of living on the river. But unfortunately to me, Margo’s character comes across as very one-dimensional and stagnant. If she had endured abuse and neglect from a young age, I could understand her personality. But since Margo was part of a big extended family and was well taken care of for the majority of her childhood until she was 15 when things came apart, her character doesn’t come across as believable.

The part of the novel that I enjoyed the most and thought was beautifully written was the time she spent with Smoke before and during his death. I felt that her interactions with Smoke showed her development and a true connection with another human that wasn’t driven by any sort of primal need besides human connection. I also found Bonnie Jo Campbell’s description of hunting practices as very informative and well researched, and I thought it was inspiring to write about a girl who is fearless when many of these stories are about men who set off into nature to survive on their own.

“Once Upon a River” is certainly an interesting book with an interesting take on Southern Michigan river residents and a young women’s story. It is worth a read, but it’s not my cup of tea.

Check out Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s official website.

Review for Next Time: “Marriage of Opposites” by Alice Hoffman

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