Archive | 10:29 AM

Book Review: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (4/5)

5 Jan

I heard of this book because the author was visiting a local bookstore but I hadn’t felt the motivation to read it. When it was picked for my book club, I was indifferent. I took this book with me to Phoenix and when I finished the book I was in the middle of the last morning there, I picked this up on the plane. I was easily 150 pages in before we landed and I was hooked. If (stupid) work hadn’t gotten in the way, I would have finished it sooner.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Joe Campbell

Summary from Goodreads:

After the violent death of her father, in which she is complicit, Margo takes to the Stark River in her boat, with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley, in search of her vanished mother. But the river, Margo’s childhood paradise, is a dangerous place for a young woman traveling alone, and she must be strong to survive, using her knowledge of the natural world and her ability to look unsparingly into the hearts of those around her. Her river odyssey through rural Michigan becomes a defining journey, one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices.

I should know better than to read the back cover of a book before I start it. Knowing Margo’s father was going to die and her mother was going to disappear didn’t ruin the whole book, but it wasn’t the best thing to know before being a few chapters in. Oh well. I loved Margo. She was strong in a way most women aren’t. She was afraid to do what needed to be done, be that shooting a deer or sleeping with someone who would protect her. It wasn’t admirable but it was necessary. I’ll spoil the end here, but this needs to be said. I’m glad she didn’t stay with her mom. She was so much stronger and more interesting than her mother. She was smart to realize she needed to be a different kind of mother than her mom was to her.

Sometimes I thought Margo was a stretch, especially when she was with Michael. Her life with him was so different from what she had before or would have after and it was odd to me that she was so happy with him. I don’t think she would have married him even though she said she would. I thought the other side characters were wonderful, a very diverse mix that I could see living on the West side of Michigan. (Side note, I love that this took place in my home state!)

Smoke was my favorite character. He reminded me a bit of my grandpa, getting on in years but refusing to give into poor health and insisting he’s fine. I thought it was realistic that he was so cranky but in the end was the sweetest friend Margo could find. He was fiercely independent and at the same time was very giving. It must have been hard for Fishbone and Margo to watch him get sicker and sicker.

Some of Margo spoke to my primal instinct. There are times I’ve wished I could shoot someone who was bothering me or hurting someone I loved. I’ve wanted to run away from people I don’t like and I’ve wanted to say what I’m thinking to a man. I’ve also wanted to not wear makeup or fitted clothes and stay in a lake (or river) for hours. Alas, I never owned a boat. (Because that’s the only thing stopping me from becoming Margo and abandoning this blog, obviously.)

Image via the author's website

Bonnie Jo Campbell. Image via the author’s website

I liked the end. Margo seemed happiest living in Smoke’s boat. It was the most luxury she’d had in the book but it was also somewhere she was happy and in an environment where she could enjoy her life. It was the best of both worlds and it assured me that she could be a mother.

Her relationship with Michael seemed counter to Margo’s personality. No wonder she never unpacked all her stuff. Forcing her to get her GED and try out going to church was so different from the things that made her happy that it’s no wonder she had little trouble leaving. It might have cemented in her mind that she could live off the land, but I didn’t understand the point of that part of the book.


A lot of people tried to give Margo things that would make her ‘happy.’ The Murray’s had an idea of what would make her happy, Brian had another idea, then Michael, and then her mother. None of them were right. Margo kept running away because she wanted to make her own decisions and she ultimately got on best with Smoke because he didn’t try to force anything on her. Even Fishbone tried to get her to reconcile with her mother or have the baby in a hospital but she wouldn’t do either one. She had to make her own choices.

Writer’s Takeaway: I wish I could put into words what made Margo so likable. She was very terse but the words she said had a big impact on me. So many bad things happened to her but I never felt bad for her. She didn’t see herself as a victim so I never saw her as one. That was part of what was so strong about her.

The ending was a little abrupt for me, but I enjoyed this book on the whole. Four out of Five stars.


Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ‘Once Upon a River’ Sets Sale | Night Light Revue
Reader’s Journal: Once Upon a River | The Evening Reader