"I’m not a river spirit. Why do guys always want to make a girl into something other than what she is?” Margo asked. She was not a wolf child, as Michael had called her. Even her grandpa’s naming her Sprite and River Nymph seemed odd now, as though he wanted her not to be a person, exactly.
Margo Crane is nothing and no one if not her own person. She is self-reliant and stubbornly independent. Even the mistakes she makes are her own, not just those of someone her age or of her generation.
Like the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, Margo takes the river as her companion early in life and never leaves it. This character’s life reminds me somewhat of the life led by Harlan and Anna Hubbard on the Ohio River, memorialized in Harlan’s book Shantyboat. Margo’s specific river world, however, is set solidly in southwestern Michigan, and hers is a very different kind of story.
Like the actual Kalamazoo River and its tributaries, the fictional Stark River is vulnerable to abuse—to litter, pollution, crime, violence and ignorance. The same is true of Margo herself. This is a classic identification of character and natural setting, but have we ever seen it before from a female novelist, with a young girl as the protagonist? As readers, we enter Margo’s river world immediately in the first paragraph of the book:
The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salamanders in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count the herons in the heronry beside the Murrayville cemetery. She tied up her boat and followed shallow feeder streams to collect crayfish, watercress, and tiny wild strawberries. Her feet were toughened against sharp stones and broken glass. When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her.
Margo Crane, a girl of few possessions and little school learning, owns a single book, a life story of Annie Oakley written for children called Little Sure Shot. Annie’s skill with a gun and estrangement from her mother make the Wild West girl sharpshooter’s life meaningful to the 20th-century Michigan teenager, but other than that reading doesn’t interest Margo much. She certainly has no knowledge of esoteric religious practices. Yet Margo’s shooting is pure Zen.
There was nothing in the world but herself, her rifle, and her target. She exhaled and pressed the trigger. She held steady as the bullet left the chamber and then the barrel.
At least one reviewer has compared Margo Stark to Huckleberry Finn. Yes, both Huck and Margo abandon society’s rules for life on the river, and both are quintessentially American stories, but Margo is no female Huck. For one thing, she has sexual partners. Yes, more than one. She is sometimes willing, sometimes unwilling (so those men are not true partners), sometimes eager. Neither does Campbell’s story descend into silly chaos at the end; her touch as a writer is sure and masterful from first page to last.
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s previous novel, Q Road, did not get the attention it deserved. I’m betting Once Upon a River will receive very different treatment--and that readers of this new book will then want to go back and discover the earlier novel. Q Road took place on land, with more than one protagonist. Once Upon a River belongs to Margo and the river. I'm crazy about the first, and there are whole paragraphs and entire chapters of this new novel that I want to lift out and frame and gaze into and lose myself in.
I have never hunted or even owned a gun, but I know the river worlds of southwest Michigan from many paddles and floats down the Paw Paw, the Little Rabbit and other geographically minor waterways rich in the varieties of nature Campbell describes. Those river adventures that form some of my most vivid and precious memories of life before Up North, and Campbell takes me back there. But best of all is living vicariously inside the character of resourceful, self-sufficient Margo Crane, an American heroine for the ages and for the pioneer in all of us, women and men alike. She's an American original.