To the ranks of memorable literary heroines add the name of Margo Crane, the protagonist of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s passionate new novel, Once Upon a River. Navigating the borderline between civilization and the harsh, dangerous natural world, it’s a story of a journey that begins with the search for a missing parent and ends in self-discovery.
After her father is killed in an incident provoked by her own impulsive act, 16-year-old Margo sets out in a flat-bottomed teak rowboat on the Stark River in southwestern Michigan to find her mother, who has abandoned the family. Margo’s hero is Annie Oakley, her bible a biography of the legendary sharpshooter. With Oakley, Margo shares an uncanny ability to wield a .22 Marlin rifle, displaying feats of marksmanship that provide some of the novel’s most dramatic moments. Though it’s set in the late 1970s, that linkage contributes to the novel’s timeless feel.
Along the way, Margo encounters a succession of men whose conduct runs the gamut from depravity to tenderness. To one of these men she’s the “wolf girl,” to another she’s a “river spirit,” but whatever form her complex, shape-shifting character takes, Margo manages to sustain herself in every sort of adversity through a combination of courage, stubbornness and ability to thrive in the natural world. Her most improbable relationship is with an elderly, dying man named Smoke, whose solicitude, born of an understanding of the real nature of Margo’s quest, provides the foundation on which she can hope to build something approaching a normal life.
This is not a novel for the squeamish. There’s incest, rape, murder and graphic descriptions of animal skinning, from deer to muskrat, while Margo’s self-absorption and frequent misjudgments hardly qualify her for sainthood. Campbell, who lives in Kalamazoo, excels at evoking her home territory with a keenness of observation and naturalism that call to mind the best of Jim Harrison’s Michigan-based fiction. Combine these qualities with a plot that’s a thrilling variation on the classic journey narrative, and one has a novel that stakes a serious claim to an enduring place in our literary world.