Book Review: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

A coworker loaned me this coming-of-age story, telling me it is similar to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, only it’s a young woman (slightly older than Huck) in slightly more modern times. It was an apt description. Margo lives in rural Michigan, and the book takes place in the 1970s. Whereas Twain wove humor as a major force in his novel, Campbell uses sexuality. Because I was in a weird place in my life when I started reading it, I picked it up this summer and then forgot about it; I found it and finished reading it a few days ago.

It wasn’t a slow read; I just felt that the plot meandered a bit, with Margo drifting from one place to another without much in the way of parental influence (her dad was killed; her mother abandoned her at her most vulnerable). Still, that’s what happens in Huck Finn: as in any coming-of-age tale, the protagonist must find her way without the guidance of an overpowering and responsible adult. Once I realized that this is a character-driven, not plot-driven, novel, I read it fairly quickly. But being honest, I didn’t get into the book until I was more than halfway done. I felt parts of it prior to that were intriguing, but I just didn’t “get” what was happening yet and was wondering if the plot was going anywhere.

This book is for a slightly older crowd than Twain’s classic. There is rape, sex, and shooting—and the consequences of the above. Margo aspires to be Annie Oakley, making a living off her trick shooting while living off the land. She seems ill-equipped for the modern world. For instance, when she does find her mother living in a relatively suburban neighborhood, she spends the night. But unable to sleep indoors for so long (like Huck), she sneaks out to the backyard to build a fire, prompting an alarmed neighbor to call her mother to report a vagabond living in the back yard.

Throughout the novel, her tenacity to stick to the old ways is both an asset and a liability. Many find her attractive; some call her a river princess, or nicknames to that effect. I did enjoy the way she sticks to the old ways, seeking people who live in unconventional ways. I often ponder the numerous ways I—and most people—give in to the predominant lifestyle simply because it’s what is accepted. How many of us would attempt today to live off the land or live off the grid?

Margo’s personality and decisions are reminiscent of an earlier America, the America Huck Finn was trying to keep a hold on—one full of much less bureaucracy and fewer rules, but one that was slipping away from Huck even during the 1800s. A few times, I got annoyed at Margo, wondering why she couldn’t just accept conventional help and try to live the way society wanted her to live. But I’ll admit, as I was reading the book, I began to get mad at myself for thinking that. Here is a strong character who wants to live her way on her terms. How much different would the world be if we all had even just a hint of her gumption?

Though this is a coming-of-age novel, I am not sure I would have fully appreciated it while I was an adolescent. I needed the perspective of a (sometimes) fully-grown adult to appreciate the way that all the characters, adults and youth alike, make their own decisions based on their life experiences and assumptions. I would be interested to learn how male readers reacted to the book. So many of the men Margo encounters, or has relationships with, seem like they are just placed in the book as a step to help Margo grow and are not necessarily admirable role models (though neither are the women!).