Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011
Borrowed from my library.
Margo Crane grew up as a member of a large dysfunctional family living next to the Stark River outside of the town of Murrayville . Because of abuse and a rift between adults she finds herself alone and disconnected. When her father dies in an act of family violence, Margo decides to take to the river in her Grandfather’s boat. She runs from her family in search of her mother.
The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salemanders in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count herons in the heronry beside the Murrayville cemetary. She tied up her boat and followed shallow feeder streams to collect crayfish, watercress, and tiny wild strawberries. Her feet were toughened against sharp stones and broken glass. When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her. From page 15.
Campbell writing is clear and direct. Margo at 16 is determined but unsure of herself and falls in with men to gain security and support. Some of these men are kind, some are violent. By the end of the novel Margo gains strength and independence and is clear in the choices she makes. I found some parts of Once Upon a River hard to read and others quite beautiful, particularly the descriptions of the river and the animals and humans that live on it. The novel didn’t really grab me until the last third of so, then I found it quite moving.
Because of Margo’s journey Once Upon a River has been compared to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I found it more like Winter’s Bone, a novel I loved. If you have read this book leave a comment and I will link to your review.