Margo Crane is as strong and self-reliant as any 16-year old girl can possibly be, and indelibly linked to rivers: "When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive, she felt the Stark River move inside her." Margo is the memorable protagonist in Bonnie Jo Campbell's impressive new novel, "Once Upon a River," set along the fictional Stark River and the real Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan. It's a powerful tale of loss and survival where death comes easy and life is hard.
As Campbell did in her great story collection (and National Book Award finalist) "American Salvage," this new novel is filled with dangerous and disturbing people, including several of Margo's relatives. And while Margo has not a lick of pretense, she is certainly troubled: She possesses an understandable insecurity of her place in the world and has severe reactions to difficult events of her life, including a seemingly insatiable need to shoot deer with great precision and in great quantity.
Living in a small cabin on the Stark with her father -- her mother abandoned the family and her whereabouts are unknown -- the natural world of the river is Margo's life and is in her blood; she's clearly more at ease around it than she is around people. She knows intimately its sounds and smells, its flora and fauna, all of its riparian life. Often she swims or boats across the Stark to her aunt and uncle's neighboring home, until a shocking event occurs one Thanksgiving that changes everything for Margo and all who surround her.
She is raped by her drunken uncle, and after that things fall apart quickly. While not resisting the attack -- "Shouting no was something she might practice, once this was over, but for now she would trust Cal" -- Margo cannot hide her rage and returns to her uncle's home with revenge on her mind and her well-used rifle in her hands. The chaos that follows leads to the shooting death of Margo's father. After that, she soon sets out in her small rowboat with the goal of seeking her mother, and the river becomes even more important for her. ("She smelled the river in every corner of the house, in every molecule of air, in every pore of her own body. Even the fir smelled of the river, even the flames.")
By the novel's end, Margo discovers something else: "With her own safe and snug place on the river, she had been able to study herself the way she'd once studied the blue herons and the kingfishers, and the dogs and men she'd known."
In "Once Upon a River," 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 is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Portland, Ore.