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We agree: River girl has much to say

SALISBURY — It’s all about Margo. She is a “pioneer without a frontier,” a young woman who doesn’t understand what love is until she has someone to love. She survives on animal instincts which serve her well.
That was the discussion Thursday night at the Summer Reading Challenge’s second event of the year, held at Trinity Oaks Retirement Community. Just about 25 people came out to talk about Bonnie Jo Campbell’s novel, “Once Upon a River,” and its main character, Margo Crane. Campbell was scheduled to speak to the group via Skype, but was on a book tour in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Catawba College’s Dr. Forest Anderson rallied those attending into small groups to discuss certain questions about the book and Margo.
Anderson also passed out information about Annie Oakley, Margo’s hero. My group, which included Ann Steel, Dottie Hoy, Kim Fahs and Gwen Matthews of Literary Bookpost, tackled this question: “Margo goes by a variety of the names in the book: Margaret Louise, Maggie, Sprite, Nympho. How does her identity change — or not change — with each name?”
“She doesn’t change at all,” Steel said. “It’s how the people around her deal with her that changes. The circumstances.”
In general discussion, that proved to be what many said. Margo, the 15-year-old who loses both parents, is raped by an uncle and strikes out on a river on her own, armed with her Marlin gun, is always Margo. She’s true to herself when faced with danger, hunger, anger, love, any challenge.
The next question involved Margo’s search for her mother and what readers thought about her mother. Margo’s mother left her and the river Margo so loves years earlier, and when Margo finds out where she is and contacts her, her mother delays their reunion, again and again.
“I got tired of her looking for her mother,” Fahs said.
When Margo does find her mother, the woman is a narcissist, as Anderson said. Nude photos of her mother adorn the walls of her mother’s home. She’s vain, selfish and childish, our group decided. She’s no good to Margo, who wants to know how to live her life.
Anderson said that mirrors, somewhat, Annie Oakley’s life. Her mother was married three times, and put a lot of pressure on Annie once her shooting skills became known. Annie Oakley was also abused, being left out in the cold one night as punishment.
Anderson said it is easy to be in love with the idea of someone, how, for Margo and her mother, “the mystery was better than the reality.”
Margo, whose rape starts a chain of events that leads to her father’s death, feels responsible, but must escape the family who will not support her. She meets a man who cares for her a little, and she has sex with him. When she escapes from a violent situation there, she is raped again, and she finds refuge with Michael, whom she responds to sexually, making her seem promiscuous, but as Fahs said, Margo “is looking for love and the sex thing just goes with it.” Steel replied that Margo eventually figures out sex isn’t all there is to love.
After Michael, Margo turns to the river again, and meets a character known only as the Indian. He’s searching for his heritage — something Margo has in abundance. She is like a living history book — hunter, trapper, fisher, living off the land and deeply connected to it. But the Indian can’t live that way.
Margo is alone again when she meets Smoke, a dying old man with a friendly dog and a houseboat. Here she finds refuge that does not involve sex. Here she finds a bit of the grandfather she so loved, and she finds Fishbone, Smoke’s friend, who truly understands who and what Margo is. Anderson suggested that Fishbone is the best man that Margo has met.
By this time, Margo is pregnant, unsure what to do and seeking answers from her mother. She learns quickly that her mother has nothing to offer her, so she returns to the water and her friends. All indications, at the end of the book, suggest Margo is at peace with her decision to keep the child, and in a safe place, with Fishbone to look after her.
During the discussion at our table, Hoy asked what relationship Margo had with her gun. We agreed that it was the one thing she could trust, the one thing that would behave exactly as expected every time, the one thing she could control.
In general discussion, attendees suggested Margo “needs domesticating” to cure her wild ways, but others pointed out she already has those skills, she can kill and prepare her own food and clean up afterwards.
Another woman in the group said Margo was born old, with knowledge and habits from another century. And yet another commented, “She would be miserable domesticated. She’s free to do as she pleases.”
Margo lives like an animal in the forest, relying on instinct. The feeling from some people was that she would learn to care for a baby naturally, with the same instincts an animal has to care for its young.
Anderson described Margo as a pioneer with the absence of a frontier. Annie Oakley had a wide frontier to conquer, but Margo has only her small world on the river. But, as Fahs pointed out, Margo’s “frontier is everything … the smallest things make her a richer character.”
Anderson asked the group about the book’s ending, which leaves Margo in the river, her belly floating out of the water, and feeling as if she’s on the right path.
It ties in nicely with the beginning of the book, which describes Margo swimming as a child, swallowing minnows and letting the river flow through her. Now, Anderson suggested, she is flowing through the river, which will sustain her like the mother she needs.
The final Summer Reading Challenge event will be on Thursday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m., featuring Dr. Kurt Corriher, author of “Salvation: A Story of Survival.” Corriher will talk about the creative process and how he wrote “Salvation,” another story featuring powerful characters and a river.
Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 74-797-4252, dp1@salisburypost.com

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