I don’t read a lot of adult fiction—The Martian was the last adult novel I read, and that was just so I could have it read before seeing the movie (which, coincidentally, I still haven’t seen). So when we were assigned Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell for my Advanced Fiction class, I was a little hesitant. But, as it turns out, there was nothing to worry about.
Once Upon A River follows Margo Crane as she adventures up and down the Stark River in Michigan during the late 70’s/early 80’s after her mother leaves with another man, Uncle Cal rapes Margo during the family’s Thanksgiving celebration, and her father is murdered by one of her cousins. It’s a classic journey story set in a world all its own.
The settings throughout this novel are described with astounding clarity. I could see the snapping turtles and the swimming minnows and the chattering birds and the friendly dogs with crystal-clear detail. The river is a constant throughout the novel—Margo rarely leaves its side, and when she does, she always returns to it. In a way, this isn’t just Margo’s story. It’s also the river’s.
But even if this is the river’s story, Margo still plays an essential part throughout. The story takes place over several years as Margo tries to find a home after the aforementioned events shatter what once was her previous life. She doesn’t have a home to go back to. She travels the river in her boat, The River Rose, and meets a wide variety of characters on her way to find her mother.
And despite all of the hardships she goes through, Margo stays strong and continues on along her journey. Campbell does an amazing job at portraying this character, not through inner thoughts or even through dialogue. Margo shows her emotions through action. We learn that she’s struggling to understand being raped through her excessive hunting of deer. We learn that she’s yearning for a home as she spies on her aunt and uncle after being away for over a year. We learn that she’s very wary of the men she encounters through her constant love for the dogs she runs into throughout her journey.
Margo is such an intriguing character, whose personality grows as the story progresses. She hardly says a word at the start of the novel, and by then end, she realizes that she’s a talkative person. She shoots her first gun at the start of the novel, and then shoots a cigarette out of someone’s mouth. She grows so much throughout the novel. It’s an amazing transformation to watch evolve.
At first, I found Once Upon A River to be quite slow, but maybe that was just because moving to adult fiction was a weird leap. I read Young Adult fiction much more often, which is usually super-fast paced. But as I got into Once Upon A River, it went much more quickly. I tore through this novel. And that’s what happens when you read a truly fascinating story.