14 October 2011

Book Review: "Once Upon a River: A Novel" by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Quick review

Rating: 

Summary: This novel is easy enough to read, but one who's main character will probably challenge you. The story has very strong self-reliant themes running throughout it, making it of special interest to readers of this blog. Overall I'd recommend it, though perhaps not ahead of other books reviewed on this blog.

Full review

Once Upon a River is a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell that is set in rural Michigan, near Kalamazoo, at an indeterminate time (though after the late 1970's). The main character is Margo Crane, and the story focuses on her life between ages 15 and 18.

At the outset, Margo lives in the small town of Murrayville, which is built around the Murray Metal Fabricating Plant, as well as on the Stark river. The river is the center of Margo's world, and indeed, is almost a character in the book itself.

Margo experiences a series of traumatic life events early in the story, which drives her on a journey, first up the river, then down. She encounters an eclectic series of people throughout the story, some who are helpful or supportive to her, and those who are not. Each of them teaches her something about life, and about herself.

Of course, these people are not really "teaching" her, as much as Margo learns from the experiences. This is one of the reasons she's such a fascinating character. She epitomizes the introspection that's necessary for those who wish to enhance their self-reliance. She reflects on the events that affect her, and resolves on how she'll act differently (or not) in the future.

Self-reliance is a major theme within this book. Beyond her introspection, Margo is a very self-reliant person in her life. From an early age, she's learned to hunt, fish, cook, and do a good many other things for herself. Her journey up the river is filled with experiences that develop her ability to fend for herself.

To be fair, there were many instances where Margo conveniently received money, which meant that she could buy things to help her survive. Nonetheless, she still hunted and foraged for herself, and had to find her own shelter, etc.

There are some descriptions of hunting and processing the game in the book, but they're not overly graphic, nor are they a how-to. But, they do paint a compelling picture of what it's like to live on your own.

Of course, Margo is not a squeaky clean heroine in her story. There are many aspects of her character that may be troubling to the reader.

Of particular note is her laissez faire sexuality. I'm not a prude, nor do I have a problem with depictions of sexuality. Although the sex scenes are not overly explicit, Margo is accepting of sex in situations that most would find inappropriate. She also uses sex as a tool. Her whole attitude towards sex seems more aligned with the "free love" of the '70s, but as noted above, this book is set later than that, which seemed a bit off to me.

In addition, Margo exhibits questionable morality throughout the story. She seems to have little concept of personal property, or at least little regard for the idea. She takes things very freely from people she meets; even though she truly only intends to borrow things in some cases, the owners don't know that.

The amoral aspects of Margo's character may well be realistic, but they are certainly not admirable, and they mar the character, in my opinion.

That said, Margo does change and grow as Once Upon a River progresses. While she makes questionable choices at 15, and continues to do so through 18, we do at least see her mature, grow, and improve herself.

Ms.Campbell's writing style is engaging and easy to read, even though the story itself is not always easy. Campbell paints compelling images with her narrative, which made it easy to dive in and keep reading.

Reading at the About page on her website, you get a sense that Campell has life experiences that lend considerable authenticity to Margo and her journey:
Bonnie Jo Campbell grew up on a small Michigan farm with her mother and four siblings in a house her grandfather Herlihy built in the shape of an H. She learned to castrate small pigs, milk Jersey cows, and, when she was snowed in with chocolate, butter, and vanilla, to make remarkable chocolate candy. When she left home for the University of Chicago to study philosophy, her mother rented out her room. She has since hitchhiked across the U.S. and Canada, scaled the Swiss alps on her bicycle, and traveled with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus selling snow cones. As president of Goulash Tours Inc., she has organized and led adventure tours in Russia and the Baltics, and all the way south to Romania and Bulgaria.
This authenticity shows up in the book. The descriptions of Margo's skills, and what it's like to be walking in her shoes, all come across as very real.

Once Upon a River is a mixed bag for me. I really enjoyed the feel of the book, as well as the self-reliant and capable aspects of its heroine. Nevertheless, I believe the story could have been effectively told with a character that wasn't so overtly amoral. At the same time, Margo does bring herself around to a better path; she doesn't choose a life dominated by crime or other evils, which she could have probably done quite easily.

In the end, your enjoyment of this novel may relate to how you feel on this point. Do you prefer a character who's good and takes the high road in times of adversity? Or, do you prefer to experience the suffering and poor choices, followed with some redemption? If the latter works for you, Once Upon a River will probably be a good book for you.

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