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Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

picture of book cover

When I read anything, I almost always, without any conscious thought, create the scene from what already exists in my head. So Anne of Green Gables takes place on an area of Eaglesmere, PA that I visited a lot as a child (as does The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie); The Ladies Auxiliary is set in an Orthodox neighborhood in Baltimore; Sharp Objects is set in Naperville, etc.

So it’s exciting when a writer creates a whole new world for you, even if it’s based on places you’ve been before. That’s what I think of when people talk about an author having “a strong sense of place” in their work. I’ve spent a lot of time in Michigan, which is where Once Upon a River, but Bonnie Jo Campbell makes me think about it differently, with the river becoming so alive it’s almost a character in the story.

That’s partially because the heroine, 16-year-old Margo Crane, sees the (fictional) Stark River as a part of her. When her grandfather tells her that a bend in the river is temporary and that the river always wins, “Margo remembered thinking that she would not give up on making the river her own.” Unfortunately, as much as she loves hunting, fishing and rowing, her mother’s abandonment is followed by being raped by her uncle and the death of her father. Having no interest in school and essentially cast of from her relatives, Margo sets off to find, in theory, her mother, but in actuality is trying to figure out her place in the world.

There have been a lot of comparisons to Swamplandia!; and the two heroines share that they are going on a journey, face the elements of nature, and cope with the loss of a parent. (And, that they trust the wrong men). But while Ava is quizzical and interested in both biology and academic knowledge, Margo is interested in survival. The knowledge she wants relates to skinning, hunting and making her way without having to rely on anyone. This is one of the reasons I felt this book was special: what’s going on in Margo’s head isn’t a secret, exactly, but her character is revealed through her actions rather than thoughts.

This is not an easy book to read: every time Margo has to kill an animal for food, I cringed, and bad things have a way of finding her. But it’s a marvelous novel that deserves to be read lovingly and carefully, and I would highly recommend it.