Once Upon a River traces the cruel currents of poverty

Bonnie Jo Campbell's story of a teenage girl born to hardship and abuse in rural Michigan is a bleak but beautifully crafted and compelling read.

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new novel, Once Upon a River, tells the story of “beautiful green-eyed” Margo Crane, a runaway teenaged girl struggling alone to “learn how to live” in a poor rural area in Michigan, where she endures repeated violence from men, then slowly manages to recover with help from a few unlikely sources.

Campbell has spent more than 10 years developing Margo’s character in three previous books: the 1999 story collection Women and Other Animals, the 2002 novel Q Road, and the 2009 collection American Salvage. This last book earned Campbell both National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award nominations, and the story it includes about Margo is skilfully adapted as an early chapter in Once Upon a River.

Much of Campbell’s fiction chronicles the cycles of poverty, addiction and violence among people living in south-west Michigan. Her female characters survive as best they can among men beaten down by hard labour or unemployment, who then cope miserably by getting drunk and abusing those close to them.

We see Margo in this environment, in harrowing and captivating detail, during the late 1970s, from age 15 to about 19, though her birthday is never celebrated. She is abandoned by her mother, raped by a relative, sees her father killed, and chooses to live wild near the Stark River – the natural force that acts as Margo’s sole link to a spiritual or religious inner life. We see Margo search for her mother, maim one man and kill another with a gun, then heal from her trauma, before settling down, peacefully, somewhat alone.

The terse poetic rhythm to which Campbell confines her prose carves out a pitch-perfect omniscient narrative of the stunted emotional life Margo is forced into. The book’s disciplined, selective detail never neglects to show Margo’s emotional reactions – but these often happen chapters later, after she has moved on, repeated mistakes and absorbed terribly hard lessons. It is her task, we see, first to understand the larger cycles around her, then to see her role in them, and to discern ways both to escape the cycle and to resist the temptation to be as cold as those who have hurt her.

The book begins with Margo feeling as one with the river: “The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart,” and “When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive, she felt the Stark River move inside her.” Each day brings time with blue herons, catfish, wild mushrooms, muskrats, chickadees, snakes and the numerous deer she later kills uncontrollably, as catharsis.

After her mother leaves and her father is shot, Margo runs away from her relatives, the Murrays. She is left with little education, no family she can trust, no home and no work skills to earn a living. Since the police would probably put her in a juvenile home if they found her, she shacks up with an older man named Brian in a house set back from the river. She sees a life cooking for him, and sleeping with him, “as the best defence against the cold of winter, the best way to make sure she wouldn’t get sent back to … social services”. Her only vague goal for her life later on is “to find ma”. Meanwhile, “Margo gripped [Brian’s] arms, and she saw how he formed a house around her, how his big body became a dwelling in which she could live and be safe.”

Margo’s guide during this time are her fantasies about her idol, Annie Oakley, the famous trick-shooter of the American West. Margo herself is a crack shot – a childhood mentor called her talent “uncanny”, “possibly a miracle”. Her secret is that she draws power from the river’s calming sound to shoot well. “She inhaled the faint smell of gunpowder. She reloaded the Marlin with fifteen long-rifle cartridges … and listened for a moment to the river ... She hit the next can and the next after that, and she reloaded and knocked all the bottles from their perches. And in that several minutes of intense focusing, she felt peaceful.”

But the stories Margo loves to read about Annie Oakley offer scant help in the real world. Margo’s life with Brian begins to seem dangerous after she tells him of the men who have hurt her in the past. This triggers something in him. He calls her his “salvation”, tells her, “I’d kill my own brother if he messed with you” and begins to shout sometimes in an awkwardly playful way, “as though showing off for someone who wasn’t there”. Having seen other women in similar situations, Margo realises she “liked living with Brian, loved feeling protected in the cage of his embrace, but she didn’t mean to stay forever”. She resolves to leave. But a letter from her mother warns Margo not to visit because her living situation is “delicate”. Margo is compelled to stay, until one day Brian doesn’t come home.

His drug-addled brother Paul arrives with friends and Margo can’t avoid more violence from them before she escapes across the river to live with a kind man named Mike. Yet after Paul finds her with Mike and threatens him, Margo is forced to move again. Desperate, she sleeps briefly with a Native American college professor who tells her he’s doing fieldwork near the Kalamazoo River, where he takes her, and where Margo’s life begins to change, after he moves on, leaving her some cash and a guilty note of apology for being unfaithful to his wife.

When Margo is able eventually to live on the river, it’s not like she had dreamt. She depends on help and trustworthy advice from Smoke, an elderly unmarried man dying from emphysema. He’s also a loner, and their deep friendship is based both on Margo’s intense observation of the older man’s life and his refusal to be normal. “You’ve got every right to try and live the way you want to,” he tells her. Margo’s time living on her own not far from Smoke allows her to see it’s up to her to protect herself – from men and from her own urges to seek a man’s protection, as a lover.

A brief reunion with her mother disappoints Margo. In one of the dozens of instances where Campbell captures years of Margo’s life in a single sentence, her mother touches Margo’s cheek, and the girl thinks: “It reminded her of the way Brian had touched her that first morning, as though she were made of clay that could be shaped.”

Back on the river, as the book concludes, it’s immensely nice when Margo declares, after so much turmoil: “I don’t want to live in anybody else’s house.” But it’s a bold statement for a teenage girl living with no means to care for herself in the future. Likewise, we cheer when a man she likes approaches and Margo, shotgun in hand, says coolly: “Put one foot on my boat and they’ll find your body in Lake Michigan.”

This book of fiercesome experiences can be read in many ways. Some will see it as an indictment of modern life, a defence of survivalist culture. Some may feel uncomfortable thinking about violence among poorer people in society. Some may dismiss it as a feminist manifesto. Yet Once Upon a River represents an important achievement in realist American fiction. It is that rare book that addresses age-old material, has few stylistic fireworks, and still it manages in a steady, compelling manner to launch itself by way of the author’s masterful touch and understanding of human nature into a small category of classics that will stand the test of time.


Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book Award.

Published: August 12, 2011 04:00 AM


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