In 1970’s Michigan, Margo Crane has grown up on a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, learning how to hunt and fish from her grandfather and swimming across the river to play with her Murray cousins. The first chapters of Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s coming-of-age novel, show her running wild while her depressed, alcoholic mother sleeps all day in the sun.
Margo is a young teenager when her mother abandons her and her father. The two of them manage until a party at the Murray’s, when Margo is sexually assaulted by her uncle Cal. This incident becomes very public, severing the Cranes’ ties with the Murrays. Although Margo is initially confused about how she feels, her eventual attempt to revenge herself on her uncle goes horribly wrong and results in her cousin Billy murdering her father. With no one to care for her, Margo takes a boat and her uncle’s best rifle and begins a journey on the river.
For Margo, this is a journey of discovery, about what kind of person she is and how she wants to live, about how to form her system of ethics and what it should be. Rather than being plot driven, the novel is about the people Margo meets and her interactions with them. It is a sometimes lyrical novel about a way of life that is almost completely gone except in remote areas of the continental United States.
I was attracted to reading this book because I grew up in Michigan a decade earlier than Margo. But this is a different Michigan. I had a hard time imagining that such a life was possible around the Kalamazoo, which is now and was then in a fairly populated area of the state. I would not have such a hard time with this if the novel was set further north. However, don’t misunderstand me. I am not implying that Campbell doesn’t know her subject.
I have seen the novel compared to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but even though Margo travels up and down the river, the journeys here are mostly internal. Once Upon a River is beautifully written in spare prose, creating an unforgettable main character in Margo.