'Once Upon A River' review and talk with author

Michigan setting integral to "Once Upon A River"

National Book Award finalist Bonnie Jo Campbell’s latest book, “Once Upon A River,” is placed in Michigan on a fictional Stark River, a tributary to the very real Kalamazoo River near the home of the Kalamazoo-based writer who has authored three other novels, incluing “American Salvage,” which garnered the National Book Award finalist stature.

The main character of “Once Upon A River” is 16-year-old Margo Crane, described in the jacket cover as “a beauty whose unflinching gaze and uncanny ability with a rifle have not made her life any easier.”

That’s an understatement.

Margo is at home in nature. Indian-like, she listens to the world around her, gets in sync with its rhythms, its creatures and learns to live off the land.

It becomes a matter of necessity because the one species that repeatedly poses problems for her is humanity.

After her father dies a violent death, she takes to the river in her grandfather’s rowboat. She idolizes Annie Oakely, and searches for her alcoholic mother who abandoned Margo and the father for a different life elsewhere.

Margo’s journey is measured more in personal pain and growth than river miles. She endures suffering, she grows, she finds companionship and friendship in unusual situations. Her beauty attracts attention; danger and violence are never far away.

Campbell, through an e-mail interview, explained her character’s development.

“Margo had already appeared in a couple of my stories, so I knew a few things about her. I knew she was quiet, that she could shoot with great accuracy, and that she knew her way around a Michigan river enough to feed herself. That was my starting point,” she said.

“What I learned about her was how she would respond to a variety of challenging circumstances. I learned why she was quiet and how that would affect her choices and opportunities, I learned how she would change as she grew to be an adult.”

Calling some of what Margo faced “challenging circumstances” might best be described as an understatement. This is no ordinary float down a river on a summer’s weekend. It stretches out for more than a year. She never goes all that far geographically, but the troubles she confronts would try a Biblical Job.

The Michigan setting is integral to the story and who Margo is, Campbell stated.

“This girl is born of the Michigan river landscape. If she lived anywhere else, she would be different — it’s hard to say exactly how. If she were in California, she would not be a river girl, though she might be a beach girl.

“the Michigan landscape is one of the few that is rich enough to produce the calories a kid needs, so she had a bit more freedome than she might have elsewhere. It’s always difficult to talk about what effect a person’s home place makes, but we know it makes a difference.”

Even in these times of continued development of much of what was once natural landscapes along the rivers of Michigan, Campbell believes a Margo could exist today.

“Yes, she could survive today on a number of rivers, so long as we could avoid an oil spill, say,” Campbell said in reference to the 2010 oil spill on the Kalamazoo River.

“There are still some places that are not as densely built up as others. She could still fish, hunt game, sneak extra vegetables from gardens,” Campbell said. Those are all strategies Margo uses to gather food and avoid interactions in towns.

“What is more challenging today is to hide away undetected. People are more in touch today than they were 30 years ago, with cell phones and GPS (global positioning system), and I wonder if she would be detected by those who were looking for her.”

The story doesn’t make it sound like people are looking too hard for her after she pushes off in the rowboat. In a way, Margo is a phantom, a ghost of herself, a shadowy figure seen by those she allows to be seen by, and avoiding contact with most others.

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