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…"
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