The story begins with the Murrays, a family that lives in Murrayville along the Stark River, not far from Kalamazoo, Michigan. The entire clan live close to each other, sharing canned goods, killed deer, every holiday, home baked goods, and fun in the river every day of the summer. Margo, the protagonist of Once Upon a River, loves her the river and especially Grandpa Murray, who taught her to shoot a rifle, trap and skin animals, fish, identify plants, and read the river. But when an uncle is caught taking advantage of fifteen-year-old Margo at a party, her father forbids her from talking to the family she can see across the river, or even entering the river. In silent anger, Margo shoots deer after deer illegally, forcing her father to help her get rid of the evidence.
Margo’s mother, who hates the outdoors, flees early in the novel, and her father suffers the fatal consequences of a misunderstanding. So, Margo leaves her home in a row boat, searching for her mother. Wisely set in the 1970s, Once Upon a River reflects a time when it was harder to find people: no cell phone, no email, no Facebook, no Google Maps. Author Bonnie Jo Campbell created a set of unforgettable characters who live by word of mouth, following trails instead of being led by technology.
Simply describing the plot of Once Upon a River will unlikely sell it to anyone. A teen-age girl who cannot part from the river, hates school, takes a long time to think and speak, and is a trick shot like Annie Oakley lands in the arms of one man after another while she tries to find her mother and “figure out how to live.” In fact, that description of falling into the arms of men may turn some readers off.
To be fair, Margo leaves home at fifteen and lands in the arms of a father figure first. As she matures, she realizes that she doesn’t need to be protected. When one man abruptly abandons her and claims their brief sexual relationship was an utter mistake, Margo learns that she can’t depend on grandpa/father/uncle figures to teach her how to live. Mostly, they try to make her someone she’s not:
“I’m not a river spirit. Why do guys always want to make a girl into something other than what she is?” Margo asked. She was not a wolf child, as Michael had called her. Even her grandpa’s naming her Sprite and River Nymph seemed odd now, as though he wanted her not to be a person, exactly.
You may ask why Margo doesn’t seek women to help. Described in the novel are only two female examples: her mother, and Aunt Joanna, who is married and has six rowdy, sometimes horrible, sons. The people she would and does encounter on the river are more likely to be single men, who don’t have permanency or even care about indoor plumbing. As such, a young woman who wants to live self-sufficiently on a river without a job or house is unlikely to encounter female role models or friends.
It’s Campbell’s uncanny ability to write secondary characters you won’t forget, because maybe you’ve met them in real life, that keeps things beautifully afloat. I, too, am from Michigan and grew up near the Chippewa River, about 130 miles away from Kalamazoo. The obsession with hunting, shooting, trapping, and fishing — all activities most of Campbell’s characters love — is very real where I come from, for both men and women.
I must be honest that Margo’s temperament, which manifests itself through her hunting rifle, is what I love most about Once Upon a River. Not all men go unharmed, and being her own vigilante never hurt my opinion of her. But Margo can never vocalize the hate she feels, not until she meets another elderly man (okay, he’s ersatz Grandpa Murray) who tells her, “You’ve got every right to try to live any goddamned idiotic way you want to.” Margo, who seeks to know how to live, is validated.
Eventually, always-quiet Margo is able to speak up, telling a kindly man, “Thank you for the permits, sir, but please keep off my boat. . . . No men are welcome here.” Nice job, Margo! She’s living in a way that makes her happy, and she can vocalize her boundaries, even when a man is/seems nice. Kindness doesn’t mean a sexual favor is owed, though some seem to think so, including Margo for a time. It’s a lesson Margo honestly had to learn herself by listening to herself. Her mother, who makes another appearance, certainly tries to convince Margo that it’s a job just to stay looking young for a husband, to seek fun and pleasure — contrary to Margo’s wilderness approach to life. The author doesn’t look upon certain women favorably, and the message seems clear: dislike of physical labor and ignorance of the outdoors means reliance.
A beautiful, complicated novel, one I read when it was first published in 2012 and was eager to read again.