Lately, when I pick up a new title, the announced motif on the jacket sleeve makes me chafe. It’s the one that precedes all else and screams “Read Me!” like a child pining for attention. “A sprawling feminist debut...” it’ll say, or “Ordinary men and women confronting loneliness...” When I encounter this, I thrust down the book, guffawing loud enough for the store clerk to hear me.
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River is one of those titles that could easily announce itself. It packs on the motifs—sexual identity, man vs. nature, revenge—but it’s Campbell’s reputation that draws attention. Four books in, her career seems the envy of every young fiction writer, boasting the AWP Prize in Short Fiction, a Pushcart Prize, a National Book Award nomination, and a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination. The bulk of her work engages the perplexities of rural midwestern life, teeming with brutal honesty and dark humor. Once Upon a River, Campbell’s second novel, picks up where American Salvage left off. But these aren’t gritty stories about men and methamphetamines (though there is that); rather, 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:
Margo, named Margaret Louise, and her cousins knew the muddy water and the brisk current, knew the sand and silt between their toes, scooped it into plastic cottage cheese tubs and sherbet buckets and dribbled it through their fingers to build sagging stalagmites and soggy castles.
This dreamlike prose flows along the banks and down the river, keeping, for the most part, a close third-person point-of-view. The concrete details are grounding but made extraordinary by Campbell’s musical syntax. You get the sense that it’s less of Margo’s voice here and more of an omniscient narrator: a folksy, seemingly archaic voice (reminiscent of Twain or Steinbeck) that refuses to begin in the middle of the action, a move teachers of writing typically caution against.
Danger looms when Margo is lured into a shed by her Uncle Cal. He says he’s going to teach her to skin a deer. Steeped in grief over the death of her grandfather, vulnerable in her ironic yearning for company amidst self-alienating and near-mute silence, she falls victim. Is it rape? Is it consensual? The answer to that question festers, simmering a subtext that informs every bit of Margo’s decision-making throughout her journey. Though we never get a clear statement of Margo’s feelings, her violence does the talking: she shoots off the tip of her Uncle Cal’s penis. Crane and Billy, Cal’s son, rush to the scene. Crane takes the gun from Margo, and Billy, deducing the situation, shoots and kills Crane.
Instead of trying to wedge herself into her aunt and uncle’s family, Margo strikes out on her grandfather’s rowboat, The River Rose, hunting, fishing, stealing from gardens, and foraging for food. The story swings large, and the river embodies an alternate world. It’s a world of solace, of give-and-take, and an ultimate path to her mother.
Rocked by the motion of the river, she slept hard and for a long time, until the sun was high the following day. She woke up cold, stiff, and confused about where she was, and also grateful no one had bothered her.
The metaphor of “the river as mother” becomes apparent here. Campbell’s sentences are highly readable, lyrical, and in that Hemingway-esque way she continues, never mucking up Margo’s thoughts with melodrama or overly-stylized constructions. The images are clear, emotive, and focused.
Margo confronts a cast of characters in a series of episodes that could easily be extracted and self-contained. There are Brian and Paul, the aggressive backwoodsmen who grew up on hard times and work at the factory. There is Michael, the calm and quiet man with the yellow house downstream. There is a Native American man—whose nomenclature remains “The Indian”—on his own journey to rediscover his ancestry. There is Smoke, an old man sequestered between his obdurate desire to die at home and his daughters’ desire to dispose of him at a nursing facility. And finally, there is Margo’s mother.
During long meditated months, Margo lives alone on the land and sleeps in an abandoned marijuana house. Another rule Campbell breaks: don’t write a story where a character wanders around alone and thinks a lot. But these are some of the most beautiful passages in the novel. Long, ruminative, airy, intimate prose encapsulates Margo’s disintegrating youth and her coming to terms with her internal turbulence:
She searched for giant puffball mushrooms and chicken-of-the-woods, and each evening at dusk she watched thousands of fireflies charge and discharge. She kept herself hidden as best she could, and was happily surprised that nobody came around to investigate the modest fire she burned each evening and put out each morning.
Campbell ebbs and flows between the inner and outer landscape. In her solitary scenes, Margo’s interactions with nature often provoke a memory or a feeling, but the river remains her most constant relationship. A writerly wisdom saturates the point-of-view. Certain mysteries, lines like “kept herself hidden,” exemplify the freedom of the close-third-person. Would Margo say she was hiding? Or is that Campbell’s voice?
One thing that struck me over and over while reading the novel was Campbell’s ability to plumb the complexities of seemingly simple equations. The author takes her time, floating around in Margo’s deeply intuitive and patient process of making decisions. These episodes ultimately add up, and the deceptive simplicity turns complex and effective because, much like mathematics—which Campbell studied—each problem builds on the next. In order to grasp the meaning of each situation, Campbell allows Margo time to sort out the corollaries.
It’s helpful to think of the novel as episodic, especially as the river begins to feel ethereal, anthropomorphic, almost parabolic for the stages of life. Margo’s story seems wildly unbelievable—how can a single soul encounter so much awfulness in such a short time?—concentrated to one atrocity after another, but its poignancy resides in attention to the intricate, how each detail of life, whether a puffball mushroom or a strong south wind, can affect us in ways we’ll never know. Margo Crane joins her idol Annie Oakley as one of the most memorable, resilient, and electrifying heroines in contemporary literature.
Joshua Cook recently received his MFA from Pacific University. He lives with his lovely wife and writes in Minneapolis.
Once Upon a River
Bonnie Jo Campbell
$25.95 hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-393-07989-0