Have you ever seen a deer eating a bird? Then you probably haven't yet read a beautiful, if not always pretty, novel about a latter-day female Huck Finn either. Well, the scene of the deer eating a bird comes from "Once Upon a River," a new novel from Bonnie Jo Campbell. (Her stories, "American Salvage," made her a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009.) Her novel contains a large number of other interesting details in addition to the aforementioned curiosity of animal life, all of them observed by Margo Crane, the teenage girl who serves as the main character. The details that make up her story I find to be quite unparalleled in our fiction.

The opening paragraph, for example, stands out as one of the most striking I have read in a long time. "The Stark River," Campbell writes, "flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane's heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salamanders in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count the herons in the herony beside the Murrayville cemetery. She tied up her boat and followed shallow feeder streams to collect crayfish, watercress, and tiny strawberries. Her feet toughened against sharp stones and broken glass. When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her…"

What a way to begin our own journey through this engaging novel! Everything is here: young Margo's deep ties to the living world, water in particular, her curiosity and adventurous nature, the presence of blood and family ties (and the hint of death), way the world tests her and moves inside her, and hints of her struggle to find freedom in a world of predetermined flow. Upstream, downstream, this young hero wants to make her own way. Though because of all this a reader may immediately conjure up an association with Huck Finn, Margo herself has a real-life hero in sharpshooting Annie Oakley. She, like her idol, has a knack for target-shooting, a skill that changes her young life when, after she is raped by her uncle she shoots him in his privates, which leads almost immediately to the death of her father.

Her mother has already abandoned her, and with her father gone, Margo sets out to make a life for herself on the aptly named Stark River, which Campbell has invented to help Margo go with life's flow. Or sometimes against it. She skins fish, cooks ducks, beds down in the raw elements, makes friends, hides from enemies, mourns for her father, searches for her mother, takes lovers— which, at least when she first starts out, makes all the men she sleeps with into statutory rapists and turns her into the most realistic underage runaway in modern fiction—and sometimes shoots to kill.

Fortunately Bonnie Jo Campbell works all of this material, some lyrical, some naturalistic, and all of it contributing to the creation of a heroine some smart young adolescents may find as attractive as Annie Oakley—or Huck. With an ease and an always convincing prose, this novel is one of the most compelling of the year.

Alan Cheuse is the author of the new novel "Song of Slaves in the Desert"

"Once Upon a River"
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
W.W. Norton, $25.95, 348 pages