three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-OnceUponRiverBonnie Jo Campbell, the author of the National Book Award Finalist short story collection American Salvage (2009), returns with a full-length novel of a woman who pursues sexual and spiritual freedom in a unique way: she gets on a raft and floats down a Michigan river.

The Story: Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this novel focuses on Margo Crane, an attractive 16-year-old woman who has already lived a rough life. Her mother abandoned her; her uncle raped her; and her father died violently, a death for which she was partly responsible. In an effort to reshape her life, Margo builds a raft and sets out on the Stark River, a fictional tributary of the Kalamazoo, to search for her long-lost mother. Margo's looks, and her unique ability to hunt, trap, and skin wild game, win her numerous admirers. As a result, she enters into a series of relationships that are brutal or loving--or, sometimes, both. As Margo finds out more about her mother's whereabouts, she is forced to choose the path of her future.
Norton. 348 pages. $25.95. ISBN 9780393079890

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Bonnie Jo Campbell has built her new novel like a modern-day craftsman from the old timbers of our national myths. ... For many chapters this is a sad, harrowing story, but Campbell doesn't leave us there. Margo's hushed voice is so pure, her spirit so indomitable, that you'll yearn for her to find the freedom she craves." Ron Charles

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]his new novel is filled with dangerous and disturbing people, including several of Margo's relatives. ... Bonnie Jo Campbell has given us a haunting moral story, rich with evocative descriptions of the delicacies of nature in the presence of indelicate characters." Jim Carmin

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]n places, we wish for more from Margo, a greater sense of connection, a closer look at her emotional life. ... To compensate, Campbell develops a highly articulated metaphoric structure." David L. Ulin

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Through it all, we get the satisfying feeling of having joined Margo on her odyssey. ... With Ms. Campbell's noteworthy talent and a heroine as appealing as Margo, it's hard not to wish that the novel had dared to light out for more unknown and imaginative territories." Sam Sacks

New York Jrnl of Books 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It's dark territory here, not filled with humor or much compassion until the end. ... While one does come to care for young Margo, our anti-heroine, her character often seems inconsistent, frequently changing like the wind and the river." Larry Smith

Critical Summary

Readers familiar with American Salvage know that Campbell is unflinching in her portrayal of the darker aspects of life, and such is the case with Once Upon a River. Not surprisingly, this unremittingly dark story divided critics. Some felt that the tone, given the novel's subject matter, was entirely appropriate; others disagreed, believing that the bleak nature of the book kept Margo two-dimensional. Numerous critics also noted the Huck Finn themes but argued that Campbell provided us with a more fitting analogy to Margo's character: the rebellious and independent Annie Oakley.