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Hard lessons for a young girl on her own

“Once Upon a River,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell. W.W. Norton & Co. 2011. 348 pp. $15.95.

At first, Margo scared me as the lead character in “Once Upon a River.” She was too much, too introverted, too quick with her Marlin, too naive.
But as the book progressed, I came to love Margo, who lives her life as if it were in another century. She is strong, she thinks deeply about many things, she is true to herself. And she returns love that is too seldom given to her.
“Once Upon a River,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell, is the second of three Summer Reading Challenge books and it’s a compelling novel, told at the pace of a river current, sometimes slow, sometimes rushing. It does seem to take place in another era — although Campbell writes about trucks and outboard motors, it could be the 19th century as Margo learns to shoot, hunt, fish, skin, butcher and cook the creatures of land and water. Maybe it’s because she stopped going to school in 10th grade that Margo has a fairly simple view of the world: I take care of me and mine and I don’t need anyone else.
It turns out, of course, that she does. And some of those people need her; others just use her, but she’s hungry for attention.
Margo is living in Murrayville on the Stark River in Michigan, surrounded by an extended family, all Murrays, all dependent on a business her grandfather founded, Murray Metals.
We never meet Granpa, but get to know him through Margo’s memories and skills. He is a huge influence on her. Margo’s mother left long ago, tired of “the river stink.” Her father, Crane, has raised her the best he knows how — and that’s teaching her the essentials of taking care of herself, hunting, fishing and the chores that follow. Granpa taught her how to maneuver a boat on the river.
Sadly, life in Murrayville turns dangerous and deadly. In her innocence, Margo is involved in a sexual encounter with her uncle. A cousin sees what’s going on and all hell breaks loose. It leads to estrangement, injury and death.
Now on her own, Margo turns to the river for her needs, and not just the physical ones. Only the river can calm her, bring her peace, embrace her when she has no one else.
There are consequences to what’s happened back in Murrayville, but Margo moves beyond that. Barely 16, she makes a rough way along the river. What is disturbing is how easily she falls for attention, how she responds to the least bit of comfort or kindness sexually. At first it seems abusive and misguided, but as the book continues, and she begins to respect herself a little more, the easy sexual encounters become more like an animal response — and that’s what Margo knows, animals, how they live and survive.
When she feels actual love, she is again confronted with ugliness and danger from her recent past, with someone who gets what he wants when he wants it, no matter what. It’s no surprise how Margo reacts, but it leaves her alone again, this time without many options. She has her backpack, her knife and her gun and that’s about it.
Repeated attempts to contact her mother are rebuffed. “Now is not a good time,” she reads in letter after letter, so she learns to survive largely on her own until a brief encounter with a man who opens her eyes to some truths. All too quickly, Margo has to take extra care of herself. She finally finds some of what she’s looking for, some peace and protection and some gruff love.
When she meets Smoke and his houseboat, she knows she’s in the right place at the right time.
What she gains from Smoke and his friend Fishbone is invaluable. It’s respect. They give her a confidence about who she is and the kind of life she wants to live. They admire her skills and accept her with warm hearts. It’s nothing showy or messy. It’s the deep, quiet kind of feeling Margo has only gotten from the river.
By book’s end, she’s made a lot of changes, and anticipates the next one. Readers will have confidence, too, that she will make it, and do it her way.
Campbell’s prose flows at a pace that keeps the reader turning pages for more. This book is a prequel to Campbell’s earlier novel, “Q Road,” and it carries no revelations, except that life is hard and unfair and you best efforts often have serious consequences. Still, “Once Upon a River” has a lot to say about what we value in life. Margo is a modern-day Eve, innocent and then not, banished from the garden to the changeable river to make her way in a world she knows nothing about.
The book will be the subject of a discussion at the next Summer Reading Challenge event set for Thursday, Aug. 8 at 7 p.m. in the special events room in the main building of Trinity Oaks Retirement Community at 728 Klumac Road. The event is free and open to the public.
The discussion will be led by Dr. Forrest Anderson, assistant professor of English at Catawba College.
Barbara Setzer, facilitator of the Summer Reading Challenge, reports that Campbell was scheduled to appear via Skype for the event, but her schedule has prevented it. She is on the road promoting her book at signings and remark sessions in and around her native area of Kalamazoo, Mich.

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