Once Upon a River
Bonnie Jo Campbell
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Buy *Once Upon a River* by Bonnie Jo Campbell online

Once Upon a River
Bonnie Jo Campbell
W.W. Norton
348 pages
July 2011
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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For sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, life in rural Michigan is defined by family and a natural affinity for her environment. Fishing the Snake River with her Grandpa Murray, Margo absorbs the lessons of the outdoors and a healthy respect for nature’s bounty and limitations. Though her beautiful but dissatisfied mother complains of the damp and mold, Margo frolics happily with her Murray cousins across the river from one summer to the next, their carefree lives not yet restricted by the blood-allegiances of family or grown men made careless and stupid by alcohol.

When these boundaries blur at a critical time in Margo’s adolescence, the break incites anger and recriminations that culminate in tragedy. Her grandfather in his grave, Margo’s alcoholic mother has run away, leaving the girl to fend for herself. Filling the void in his daughter’s life, Margo’s over-burdened father defends his daughter’s honor in a family contretemps that ends in his death: “Her father was dead and nobody alive has any use for the truth.”

Placing her rifle and scant belongings in Grandpa Murray’s teak boat, Margo slides quietly into the Snake River in pursuit of her errant mother, the teenager a deadly shot with a lonely heart in search of somewhere to rest and nowhere to call home. She learns quickly what is essential for survival on the river and in the world of men, seeking security but with the caution of the animals she hunts. Cut off from her Murray relatives, Margo intrudes on the privacy of seasoned, often violent men, bartering for safety, forging her own moral compass from fear and necessity. Bargains reluctantly made demand a vigilance as yet unfamiliar to a girl barely cognizant of her nascent power.

Living by her wits and enviable skill at hunting, the solitary traveler finds no respite, each encounter fraught with danger in this river life until there is only one place left to go, a reluctant mother who temporizes that “it’s not the right time.” In prose permeated with the daily drama of the Michigan wilderness and the equally wild terrain of Margo’s heart, Campbell creates a prototype of Annie Oakley, a girl seeking purchase in a hostile world with a spirit to match any man’s, with no guidance but her instinct and the memory of her grandfather’s words. Motives as clean as the shot that drops a deer in her rifle’s sights, her skill is a rare comfort in a life gone suddenly awry. Blood, violence and betrayal are Margo’s companions in an odyssey that bridges adolescence and adulthood, Margo unable to rest until she is face to face with her delinquent mother.

This modern-day Annie Oakley carries a tattered copy of that heroine’s biography, drawing strength from another brave girl who survives wilderness both physical and emotional, decisions honed by self-preservation and the occasional goodwill of others. Trustworthiness is often a temporary thing, born of the circumstances of the moment. Margo gauges her direction through the prism of hard-earned experience. An extraordinary tale set in the wooded Michigan landscape is as profound a personal journey as any young woman might face. Margo bears the burdens of love, betrayal and grief, finding home in the most unexpected of places.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2011

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