Once Upon A River (Bonnie Jo Campbell)

I’m not sure why I kept this book on my shelf so long. I loved American Salvage so much that I think maybe I feared a sophomore slump. I shouldn’t have worried. This is another great book. It was a write-up in my college alumni magazine that made me pull it off the shelf. Apparently, a movie has been made, so I had to read it before I saw any images from the movie. And now I can’t wait for it.

This book, like Campbell’s earlier one, is a story of a world that I do not know. Her descriptions and characters are so evocative that I feel like I would know them and their river if I was ever lucky enough to find them (though I would not want to encroach upon their world).

This is, on the surface, the story of a journey, both personal and practical, but Campbell uses the conventional framework only to twist it a bit, like a slightly unexpected turn in the river, not to shock us, but to reveal some truths about people and the way they choose to live their lives, and what they learn along the way. Margo Crane (I admit I kept picturing Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone) has a journey to take and there are, as you might expect, stops along the way, both expected and surprising. You’d be unwise to let the serenity of the river or the fairy tale-like title fool you; there is real violence here. None of it is gratuitous, and Margo’s responses to it – even her own choices – are compelling.

And because I read it now, during the pandemic, I wondered if these people would wear masks. I think Michael would. I think Smoke wouldn’t, but his nieces would. I think, however reluctantly, Fishbone would.

I enjoyed not knowing how Campbell would find her way to ending of Margo’s journey, even if it only turns out that it is a temporary one. That’s not to say that I am longing for a sequel. Margo, in my mind, may move on. (Note to author: I would welcome a sequel.) The final image of the book is perfect, one of my favorites of all time.

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