“Once Upon a River” by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon a River” by Bonnie Jo Campbell (2011) – 346 pages

 In 2010, 697,529 people purchased a deer hunting license in Michigan, of which 9% were females.  Doing the math that means there were 62,777 females who purchased deer hunting licenses just in Michigan.


So maybe the teenage heroine of ‘Once Upon a River’, Margo Crane, is not all that unique.  But Margo not only shoots the deer, she skins them, and cuts them up for frying or cooking.  She is proud of her sharp shooting skills, and her idol is Annie Oakley – ‘Little Miss Sure Shot’.  Margo can shoot a cigarette out of a man’s mouth from ten feet away. 

The story in “Once Upon a River’ is about Margo’s survival hiding out along two rivers, the Stark and the Kalamazoo, in western Michigan.  Circumstances have turned Margo into a loner, living on her grandfather’s boat, The River Rose.  Sometimes she must rely on men who she doesn’t know to help her.   For Margo, it is a tough mean old world, and if she doesn’t stand up for herself, no one else is going to stand up for her.  The story here is brutal and fatalistic.  There are many novels that are grim and murderous, nearly all of them written by men.  This one is unique in that it is written by a woman with a female lead.  This is the coming of age story of the teenager Margo fighting for survival in wild nature and coming up against that most brutal of all forces, human nature    

I have read reviews of “Once Upon A River” comparing it to “Huckleberry Finn” which is also a story about a young person living on the river.   I don’t quite see the similarity with “Huckleberry Finn”.  “Once Upon a River’ is much darker and more menacing than Twain’s story.  The novel to which I found “Once Upon A River” closest in spirit is “Deliverance” by James Dickey.  Both novels are about trips on the river in the semi-wilderness, ‘Deliverance’ in rural Georgia and ‘Once Upon a River’ in rural Michigan.  A large part of the story in both novels is about the threatening grotesque people in the semi-wilderness that are encountered along the way.  Certainly there are differences between the two novels, with “Deliverance” being about male bonding and “Once Upon a River” being about a teenage girl’s growing up.  However I found the brutal grotesque river settings in the novels similar.  

Not all the people Margo meets are threatening.  Some help her along the way; sometimes she has humorous and warm encounters.  This is one of those novels where you see the entire world through the lead character’s eyes and you wish for her the best.


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