"Once Upon a River," by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Campbell's plucky heroine, Margo, carves out her own epic on the Stark and Kalamazoo rivers.
Since at least the day that Henry David Thoreau traded pencil-pushing for pond-side real estate, plenty of Americans have headed to the woods in an effort to live the life they want. But, outside the realm of young adult literature, not many of them have been teenage girls.
Meet Margaret Louise Crane, a 16-year-old who could impress Grizzly Adams with her field-dressing skills. Margo can bring down a 10-point buck and skin a muskrat in two minutes. As her dad puts it, Margo “looks like an angel, but smells like rutting buck.”
Unfortunately, the smell isn't enough to put off her male relatives in Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell's outstanding follow-up to “American Salvage,” her short-story collection, which was a finalist for last year's National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. (Kalamazoo writer Campbell borrowed a gown for last year's NBA ceremony. She should just start dress-shopping now.) Margo's family owns a factory, the Murray Metal Fabricating Plant, that has polluted the river Margo and her grandfather love. It's now the 1970s, and the plant is still churning out pollution, but profits have dried to a trickle.
When Margo is 15, her Uncle Cal rapes her in a shed, and then, when he's caught, blames the girl for seducing him. A year later, Margo takes revenge, leading to another tragedy, and the teenager flees, heading up-river to search of her mom in the teak canoe her grandfather left her in his will.
This summer, it seems, all the best female characters are up a creek with a paddle. (Or in Margo's case, a rifle.) Margo doesn't get Brazil's tannin-stained Rio Negro, as does Marina Singh in Ann Patchett's “State of Wonder,” or the mighty Mississippi, which has inspired river-rafting trips from “Huckleberry Finn” to Jane Smiley's “The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.” She gets the brown, chemical-reeking waters of the Stark and Kalamazoo Rivers, and carves out her own epic anyway.
“As she traveled around an oxbow, she remembered what Grandpa used to say, that such a bend in the river was a temporary shape, that eventually … the river would reroute itself to the most direct path, never mind the houses folks had built in its way, never mind the retaining walls or the concrete chunks, the riprap they'd piled along the riverbank. The river persevered, Grandpa had said, and people would eventually give up. Margo had remembered thinking she would not give up on making the river her own ….”
Campbell seems to have explored every inlet of rural Michigan, where meth labs have replaced manufacturing, and where fishing might involve a pole or dynamite. “Twenty fish floated up dead and the man collected them. When he lit another stick of dynamite, the DNR man said, 'You know I'm going to have to arrest you for this.' So the guy handed the DNR man the lit dynamite and said, 'Well, are you going to talk or fish?' ”
Margo doesn't go in much for books – apart from biographies about her hero, Annie Oakley – and her desire to own only what will fit on her boat is antithetical to modern consumer culture. (Her vision of hell would probably be being trapped in a climate-controlled shopping mall.) Campbell gives her a timelessness the people she meets, usually men, remark on – when they're not trying to get in her into bed. “Margo didn't know what throwback meant apart from fish too small to bother eating.”
One lover keeps trying to indoctrinate a baffled Margo in the twin faiths of self-actualization and self-improvement. “He thought Margo needed to set personal goals for her life, as though living beside the river, fishing, shooting, and picking berries, mushrooms, and nuts were not enough.”
Margo herself is too busy trying to navigate by her own moral compass and heal from the damage caused by the violence that erupts in her life. “Margo wasn't sure she could move forward in time, when the past kept calling for her attention the way it did.”
I haven't so desperately wanted a happy ending for a character in a long time. Margo, for her part, is working towards something more hard-won: a life lived on her own terms.
Yvonne Zipp is a Monitor contributor.