Book review: ‘Once Upon a River’ by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Once Upon a River

A Novel

Bonnie Jo Campbell

W.W. Norton: 348 pp., $25.95

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “American Salvage” was one of the standout books of 2009 — a collection of 14 stories so sharp they made you bleed. In one, a hunter hits a teenage girl with his car on a foggy morning roadside, then must resist the urge to “use her body” while they wait for an ambulance to arrive. In another, a man quickly cycles through his options for dealing with a meth-addicted wife, only to realize, as if he didn’t know it from the outset, that he has no choice but to carry on.

These are brutal stories, set in rural Michigan (Campbell lives in Kalamazoo), infused with drugs and easy violence, tracing the line between perseverance and despair. Perhaps nowhere does the collection cut more deeply than in the opening story, “The Trespasser,” in which a middle-class family discovers that its weekend cottage has been used as a meth lab, even as one of the intruders, a ravaged 16-year-old girl, slips out the back door and makes her escape by stealing a rowboat and drifting away.

A similar sense of crisis impels Campbell’s second novel, “Once Upon a River,” which also deals with a 16-year-old adrift on a river, in the wake of tragedy. Actually, the novel has its roots in another “American Salvage” story, “Family Reunion,” about a girl taking apt revenge on the uncle who abused her. That character is named Marylou; in “Once Upon a River,” Campbell changes it to Margo, but the girl is the same, as is the essence of her journey — which is ostensibly to find the mother who abandoned her but is really about putting some distance between herself and her history and finding a way to navigate the world.


If this sounds a bit like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the comparison is, perhaps, inevitable: Put a teenager on a river, and that’s what you get. Yet Campbell has something less resolved in mind here, not a picaresque journey, not even a moral awakening, but a coming-of-age in the most concrete sense.

Yes, for Margo, the river is refuge, especially after her revenge attempt goes wrong. It is a refuge, though, fraught with all sorts of perils, both expected and unexpected, in which the very people who help her also endanger her and she must retain a fluid understanding of who and where she is. Campbell makes this explicit early in the novel, after Margo ends up 30 miles upriver at a cabin owned by a friend of her grandfather’s. This man, Brian, has real concern for her, but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping with her at the earliest opportunity, or leaving her exposed to the lusts of other men.

Such lusts bubble throughout “Once Upon a River” — if not always on the surface then a degree or two below. Margo, as Campbell tells us, is beautiful, a “precious river princess,” and men are drawn to her. But it’s not just that, it’s also the quality of life on the river, where social niceties fall away before more elemental ways of getting along. Sex is part of Margo’s survival kit, and Campbell coolly parses the girl’s own desires, the compromises she is willing to make, her need to find a place that is secure.

“She was surprised at how much she wanted to keep kissing him, though he was practically a stranger,” she writes, describing the girl’s first interaction with a man named Michael — white-collar, young and educated, the kind of man who should know better but does not: “She was feeling the same urgency she felt when she had a buck in her sights.” Campbell highlights the link between sex and violence, the way one brings shelter and the other sustenance or protection, the way that, for a girl like Margo, options flatten and decisions become practical at a level most of us will never know.

And yet, if this is what is best about “Once Upon a River,” this sense of moral indeterminacy, this idea of the world as it is rather than how we wish it was, there is also something about the novel that keeps us at a distance, preventing us from being fully engaged in it. In part, this has to do with Margo, stoic to the point of taciturnity, keeping her feelings tamped down so they will not overwhelm her with loss. It’s a tough challenge for a novelist, and in places, we wish for more from Margo, a greater sense of connection, a closer look at her emotional life.

To compensate, Campbell develops a highly articulated metaphoric structure, comparing Margo to her hero, Annie Oakley, who also lost her father early and was abandoned by her mother, then framing her as something of a wild animal: a wolf cub or one of her beloved herons (Margo’s last name is Crane.) “I like cranes, too,” Michael tells her. “Not as common in these parts, of course. The females are reclusive.”


It’s a bit too on-the-nose, as if Campbell doesn’t trust us to make the necessary connections, or perhaps didn’t trust the ambiguity of her narrative. For all her tumult, after all, Margo is in the act of becoming, a child who grows into a woman as the book goes on. To see her at novel’s end, “with her own safe and snug place on the river,” is to recognize this, to see her at-times meandering saga as an extended slice-of-life. That’s the key to Campbell’s stories, which eschew easy summaries, easy conclusions, and are all the more astonishing for doing so.

That leaves us with a question about the relationship between novels and short fiction, about what they have in common and what they never will. Campbell is a brilliant story writer, but although there is much to admire in it, “Once Upon a River” lacks the intensity of her shorter work.

This is not a matter of focus; if anything, the novel is too focused, too overt. No, it’s more that in the long form, Campbell seems not quite able to rely on her instincts when, as Margo knows, instinct is the only thing we’ve got.