Once Upon A River

Once Upon A River

Pic Credit: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9658159-once-upon-a-river

Author: Bonnie Jo Campbell

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc (July 5, 2011)

Setting: The story is set mostly along the Stark River in rural Michigan.

Main Characters: Margo, Grandpa Murray, Luanne (Margo’s mother), Crane (Margo’s father), Cal (Margo’s uncle), Brian, Michael, an Indian man (no name given), Smoky and Fishbone

Summary: At sixteen, Margo has suffered the unthinkable. Her grandfather, whom she adored dearly, died, her mother left, and her father died from a gunshot by her cousin. Also raped by her Uncle Cal at a tender age, she decides to leave home to search for love and carve her own destiny but along the way, she encounters many obstacles and gets involved with several men, one of whom raped her when she was alone and helpless. On the day her dad died, she took revenge on Uncle Cal by shooting him in the crotch from a higher vantage point in the tree. Unfortunately, at that moment, her dad appeared and so did Billy, Cal’s son. Thinking that Crane shot his father, Billy fired at Crane. Even though Cal knew what Margo had done, he didn’t report her; just as how she kept silent after he had raped her.

After that incident, she moved away from home, sailed down the river and invited herself into Brian’s house (Brian was Grandpa Murray’s friend). She lived for a while with him before he ended up in jail for beating up Cal Murray (he wanted to avenge for what he had done to Margo). Paul (Brian’s brother) then seized the opportunity to rape her when she was alone in Brian’s house. Feeling scared and helpless, she found refuge in Michael’s house, who lived just around the corner from Brian’s place. She ended up initiating sex with Michael, a blue-collar worker, and fell in love with him. He tried to influence Margo to continue her studies in a community college but she refused because she felt that she wasn’t school-material and preferred hunting like Annie Oakley, a sharpshooter that she identified with. Eventually, even though they were planning to get married, Michael left her after she murdered Paul and refused to turn herself in.

She ended up making acquaintance with an Indian man, an educator travelling on the road and decided to hunt and cook for him in exchange for some money to buy ammo for her shooting. He eventually left her after a night of passion and few weeks later, she discovered that she was carrying his child and figured that she needed to a roof over her head to figure out her next step. She cut a deal with Smoky, an old man whom she developed a friendship with, who was also suffering from late-stage cancer. Smoky sold her his boat in exchange for her promise that she would kill him when the time came (to reduce his suffering).

Eventually, Smoky died from drowning in the river near his house, and even though Margo had tried to save him, she wasn’t able to muster the strength to pull him out of the water with his leg stuck in between the rocks (she was heavily pregnant by that time). The story ends with her inheriting his property after his death as she ponders over her future and her unborn child’s.

Review: Written from a third-person perspective, the author narrates the story with occasional dialogues and offers an intimate perspective into Margo’s life and thoughts. The theme of survival comes out the strongest in this story, as Margo meanders through life thinking of ways to survive on her own. Moving from one place to another, she is cognisant that winter is the most unbearable without a fireplace or warm clothing. In search of a stable place to live, sex becomes part of her survival kit, along with Uncle Cal’s rifle, which she stole in response to her father’s death. With that, she hunts for survival and cooks for the man she lives with, while living with the conscience of unintentionally causing her father’s death. This is finely encapsulated during the time Margo was homeless in the woods after Billy destroyed the boat that Grandpa Murray had given her: “Oh what a heavenly thing it would be, she thought, to be invited into his house again, to be fed and given coffee, to climb into his [Michael’s] big bed and make love and sleep and then get up and eat breakfast, day after day.” 

There is also a theme of lost love, in which Margo struggles to replace the love that was showered upon her by Grandpa Murray and her parents when she was younger. With them gone, she embarks on a search for love and tries to understand the incomprehensible and abstract meaning of love. With Brian, she wondered if love equaled cooking for a man and keeping the house in check. With Michael, she wondered if his gentleness and good temper were what attracted her. But after all that, she finally finds solace in Smoky, who is more or less a replacement of Grandpa Murray. She voluntarily looked after Smoky in his darkest nights and kept him company the way she did when Grandpa Murray was ill. And not surprisingly, the underlying narrative that is weaved into this theme of lost love is largely about Margo searching for Luanne who left her and Crane behind. She had so much to ask her mom and growing up, she just wished her mother was there to explain the meaning of life and love to her. However, when she finally tracked down her mom, she learnt that Luanne had remarried and was living in a big white house, away from the river. She enjoyed her new life and always dolled herself up to look her best. Upon revealing her pregnancy to Luanne, Margo was supposed to get an abortion but she finally decided that she couldn’t go through with it. She ran away from the clinic back to Smoky’s house and cried in his lap. “Smoke petted Margo’s head in silence, stroked her hair the way a mother would stroke a daughter’s.” In that moment, Margo longed for her mother to do the same for her, but Luanne had already reinvented herself and was living a whole new life, one that was largely different from Margo’s.

Finally, the theme of maturity is played out by Margo’s character – how she evolves from a character who is lost in life after her encounter with Cal Murray, to a mother: “So many times she had gone to someone else, had begged at someone else’s table, and now she had someone to take care of…She could do as good a job as her own mother – and she would not abandon her child in a selfish effort to find herself. And maybe there would even come a time when Luanne would want to be a grandmother, if not a mother.” Looking back, we can understand why she could not put herself through the abortion – a part of her wanted to keep the child because she hoped to fulfil her rightful duty as a mother. She owed it to her unborn child to do that and it’s the least she could do. Margo also fought the temptation to have a sexual encounter with Johnny, who visited her shortly after Smoky’s death: “Margo could feel excitement coming off his body in waves. He wouldn’t let sadness hold him back. She was tempted to become part of his fun, to lose herself in him for a while and let it dull her sadness. And then where would she be?” Her decision to resist this temptation is what sets her apart from Luanne and a step towards maturity.

Overall, it has been an interesting read and Margo’s struggles as an individual illustrates how she grows as a character throughout the different stages of her life. The fact that the author painted a picture of what sexual violence and love would look like in one character is a feat in itself. However, what didn’t really work for me was how sex was sometimes used as a trade-off for Margo in her search for food and shelter, which places her and women in a bad light, suggesting that women would use their bodies in exchange for favours. Her first encounter of rape by Uncle Cal should have deterred her character from engaging in any form of sexual relationship thereafter but that wasn’t the case. The story could have relied on her talent for shooting as her sole survival tool and that would have sufficiently painted Margo in a more positive light, almost like a heroine. (Rating: 3 out of 5 stars)

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