Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 348 pages.
I enjoyed this novel even though it was hard to get through the opening part which included an incestuous rape of Margo, a teenage girl. I almost put the book down. However, Campbell never glamorized the sex scenes in the book and tells the reader just enough for us to know what happened. The rape sets up a series of events that leads into the story of Margo learning about herself and her own strength while overcoming numerous obstacles. The only thing that appears constant in her life is the river that becomes her home. Margo loves living outside, even when the weather is less than desirable and when she has an option to be in comfort. Reading this book, I was reminded of my own experience after completing the Appalachian Trail. Having spent months outdoors, I was not interested in being inside, either.
While the Kalamazoo, which is where the story is based, is an actual river, much of the scenes described in the book are fictional. The first half of the story takes place on a tributary to the Kalamazoo, the “Stark River,” that doesn’t exist. According to the map, it would be approximately the location of Battle Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo at the town by the same name. The Stark River here is populated by a rough but resilience class of people who are barely making it and who struggle when their industrial jobs disappear. Having paddled many such rivers in Michigan, I saw a lot of people living in such a condition. Old trailers and shacks dot the flood plain of the rivers. The book captures this lifestyle. In the book, the Kalamazoo is polluted. Just a year before the book was published, an oil pipeline broke on a tributary that flowed into the Kalamazoo. It was the second worst inland oil spill within the United States and took years to clean up.
I enjoyed Campbell’s ability to describe life on the river. While it’s tragic that anyone would have to endure what Margo, the book’s protagonist, had to endure, the reader begins to cheer her on as she struggles to live independently. While she always have to find others to help her, many of whom also take advantage of her vulnerable position, she overcomes the challenges and, by the end of the book, appears to have at least come to understand what’s life is about.
A Summary (don’t read this if you want to be surprised reading the book): Margo Crane is fifteen years old. She is being raised by her father, as her mother has run away, leaving the two to fend for themselves. The backdrop for the story, which was set in the 70s, is a metal fabrication factory that is slowly shutting down. Margo’s father has lost his job at the factory and now working in a grocery store to provide a meager existence for him and his daughter. They live on the Stark River, just across from extended family members. The book takes an unpleasant twist early in the story when Margo is raped by her uncle. Her father, when he realizes what happened, takes revenge, shooting out her uncle’s tires. This rift causes problems for Margo as she had been used to playing with her cousins and saw her aunt as a mother-figure. Margo has taken to the woods and has become quite a good shot with both a shotgun and rifle. She fashions herself as Annie Oakley. Margo is also out for revenge and shoots her uncle in a place that will curtail his ability to rape anyone else. Unfortunately, it is assumed that Margo’s father shot the uncle and her cousin shoots the father in “self-defense.” Now, like Annie Oakley, she’s truly an orphan and takes off in order to keep the state from taking her into protective custody. Using her grandfather’s boat, she explores the river and finds several different young men with whom to hang out. Sometimes she has consensual sex, but she is also raped. Later, she extracts her revenge, shooting the man who’d raped her in the chest. When his body is found, it is assumed he was shot for a bad drug deal. Over the next two years, Margo learns more about living on the river and befriends a couple of older men who watch out for her, especially now that she’s pregnant. She also cares for one of the men, “Smoke,” who commits suicide by running his wheel chair into the frozen river in order drown himself in a successful attempt not to be moved to a nursing home. Through these events, Margo finds the will for her and her child to live.