Reader’s Journal: Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River CoverA guilty pleasure of mine is following the fashion critics Tom & Lorenzo. I like a pretty dress as much as the next person, and I like the fact that all in all, their criticism never takes an overly personal or ugly turn. (They also happen to do an interesting wardrobe analysis of Mad Men called Mad Style.) Now and again, as they review red-carpet looks, they’ll rate a look as GTNYD, or “Girl, that’s not your dress.” Essentially the idea is that while there’s nothing wrong with the dress and nothing wrong with the person wearing the dress, the two would be better off without each other.

Considering this approach, I’m afraid that I would have to rate Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River thusly: BINYR, or “Book, I’m not your reader.”

This is a tough review to write. I was excited to read Once Upon a River and I expected to love it; after all, Campbell’s story collection American Salvage, which contains two of the seed stories for Once Upon a River, was one of my favorite reads of 2013. And while I still believe wholeheartedly that Campbell is a fine writer whose works are well worth the time, I really struggled to get through this novel.

Once Upon a River tells the story of Margo Crane. Growing up along the Stark River in northern Michigan, fifteen-year-old Margo’s world shifts after a string of difficult events (beginning with the departure of her mother and rape by her uncle) affect Margo and her family. She leaves home just shy of her sixteenth birthday, striking out alone with fantasies of somehow being able to survive alone in the wilderness. Margo idolizes Annie Oakley and dreams of finding someone to love and care for. Sadly, the first person she finds is a man three times her age. Apparently, Margo is not only a capable young woman–a crack shot who can also skin animals and fish for her supper–but she is also beautiful. (And mostly silent, because after the incident with her uncle, she stopped talking for the most part.) She willingly becomes the man’s lover, and while he is kind to her for most of their time together, there’s something disturbing about the way he fetishizes her beauty, her reticence, and her wild nature. There are three more men, two she gives herself to willingly because she is lonely and looking for someone to love.

Once Upon a River, for this reader, is the story of a heart-breakingly lonely person. Margo is only eighteen when the book ends, and she is pregnant and alone. Through a lucky turn of events she has found a way to put a roof over her head. What bothers me about the book is how much it seems to romanticize Margo’s longing, as well as her isolation. She pictures herself as a wolf girl who who can live on her own in the wild, or as a sharp-shooter like Annie Oakley. In reality, she has been abused and abandoned, endured tragic loss. She is uneducated and has few prospects beyond hunting and trapping, keeping the crops safe for farmers and selling skins along the Kalamazoo river. She’s carrying a child she has no real way to care for; she has no support system, no medical care.

In reviews, this book is often compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Walden. I suppose if Huck had been abused by Jim and then started turning tricks along the river, sure, these books would be more alike. This is not a criticism of Margo as a character, because she does use her wits to survive. But the story is quite bleak, and I’m somewhat surprised at how reviewers have romanticized this book. I don’t think of myself as a prude, but I’m bothered by the idea that this young, abused female character is somehow seen as plucky and adventurous. She uses sex to survive; she uses it as her shelter because she is so alone. (And yes, in some ways she does feel and own desire as well. I don’t want to disempower the character by taking that away from her.) And while I know that not every sexual act that follows an abusive one is tainted by said abuse, the men in Once Upon a River love Margo for her silence, for her wildness, for being an empty vessel into which they can pour themselves. She finally commits her own act of violence against a man out of necessity, and in a sense it drives her into further isolation. I don’t find the fact that she is pregnant and alone at the end (although she is happy, and as I said, she finds a certain stability) to mean that she has finally found something to fill her life up with, found someone of her very own to love. If you’ve seen any documentaries or even reality shows about teen pregnancy, then you know that this is the fantasy of so many teen mothers–that finally, they’ll have someone of their own to love, someone who’ll also be required on some level to love them and want them, too.

The plusses–because honestly, there are a few–are that the story is simply so well written, and Campbell clearly knows and loves the landscape. I am a sucker for a writer who can make place as much a character in a book as the people who inhabit it, and Campbell makes the river come to life. And although I was exasperated by Margo’s story and her relentless bad luck at times, she is well-drawn and the reader cannot help but pull for her. To put down the book and not see Margo through to the end would have meant another kind of abandonment she simply did not deserve.

In the end, my own ideas and ideals fail this book. While I realize that I meant to believe that Margo has her own quiet strength, that she is a survivor–and indeed, I think that’s true–I cannot get past the fact that a quiet reserve so often isn’t enough in this world.

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