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Saturday, September 08, 2012


Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River is certainly a travel book; our protagonist is Margo Crane, a young teenager lost so convincingly in time and space that each time she encounters the modern world, I am stunned.  My mind has her someplace in the past, and when I realize the time is NOW, I find it difficult to believe.  Margo is a tough nut to crack, but for this reader she is definitely worth a try.

Once Upon a River evokes the familiar Huck Finn analogy and the familiar symbols of the river journey and the water baptism, but Margo Crane is truly twentieth century.  Perhaps the tragedies in her life could have happened in any era, but they are too terribly familiar and too avoidable to seem out of time. 

Yet there is a time travel element in Margo’s naiveté.  Her hero is Annie Oakley, and her innocence and acceptance of that long ago time makes her unable to accept the modern world around her.  She has no interest in school.  She is a crack shot, taught by her grandfather and honed through long practice.  She is self-sufficient: knows how to kill animals, gut them and prepare them for food and clothing.  She has a vague understanding of human emotions and the forces of good and evil that work on them, but she is not always able to control her own impulses.  This skill takes time and practice ironically in the same way that shooting does.  She has the time, and she gets the practice.  She has no one to help her.

As a fourteen year old, Margo seems unable to distinguish between many acts of good and evil.  That will become a little clearer to her in the years we know her.  She is almost like a young, untamed animal herself, living on instinct, experiencing sensual pleasures and acting on raw emotions without any consideration of consequences.  There is no one in her life to teach her.  She is on her own.  That is a difficult way to begin life.

Because Margo tries, despite the odds and despite the people—good and bad—who meet her, use or help her, and initiate her into the ways of the world, we are in her corner.  We want her to succeed in spite of the odds, and as we read, we wait for some force to guide her on the right path.

This is a bildungsroman, a rite of passage story, and like Huck Finn it is picaresque novel—one that is told in episodes—and it works on both levels.  We follow Margo through several years of adventures, relationships, and choices, and we can see her growth over time.  The book is a page turner.  I wanted to know how she is at the end.

On the other hand, am I satisfied at the end?  I’m not sure that I am.  Margo keeps me guessing, and I want to know what the future holds for her.  It is also difficult for me to accept her final choices as the best ones she can make, and I wonder if her choice is not a doomsday scenario, all too familiar in today’s world that requires certain things of us whether we want them or not.  Her choices do not always really exist.

Great civilizations grew up along the great rivers of the world, but Once Upon a River is not the birth of greatness.  Nor is it a fairy tale with a happily ever after ending as the title might suggest.  Rather, this novel depicts some of the dark side of the human condition.  It is a kind of horror story—one definitely worth reading.
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