"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.