My book club had very split opinions about Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River. I was a huge fan. Others disliked Margo and by default, didn’t like the book. With such a strong narrator, it didn’t surprise me we were polarized.
Bonnie Jo Campbell is a Michigan-born author from the West side of the state. She was born in Kalamazoo in 1962 and for those out of Michigan, yes, a lot of our cities have awesomely fun Native American names. She got her Bachelors’ in Chicago, the closest big city to that side of the state. Her Masters’ is in Mathematics and her MFA is from KZoo’s own Western Michigan University (undefeated in the regular season this year!). She’s married but our moderator couldn’t find if she had children or not. Her other books, which have been well received, are primarily short story collections. We were able to find that her first book is about a girl born on the river with a mother named Margo. Um….! I might have to read that.
Being a Michigan-based author, we felt Campbell did a great job creating rural Michigan. The East side, where I’m from, is very different from the Michigan Campbell describes, but it reminds me of the parts of Northern Michigan I visit, where my parents own a cottage. It’s fun to remember how diverse a single state can be.
Though the Stark River and Murrayville, the settings Campbell created, are fictional, they were great representations of the state. The water is very important to the story and it’s used in a lot of ways. Margo is cleaned in it, eats from it, and recognizes that on it, she can be cleansed of her past. It’s also lethal (spoiler ahead). Smoke is literally dragged down into the river and couldn’t be saved. The river is always moving and changing. When Margo needs to run away, she can follow the flow downriver or make her way upriver to find a change and that’s what she likes about the river. Lakes are different. Her mother lived on a lake and Margo didn’t like the feel of it. She craved a river.
One thing we noticed is that while rape and sex were present in this book, they weren’t focal points. Especially when Cal raped her, it didn’t feel terrifying and victimizing. It was confusing and uncomfortable which we felt was likely more life-like. Margo used sex with various men as a survival tactic. She wasn’t looking to have a good time, she was trying to find her next meal and some shelter. I really enjoyed her character and strength.
Not everyone liked Margo as much as I did. We all agreed she was mature for her age and was very resourceful. A lot of people saw her as a misfit who didn’t fit in. I felt she fit in on the river but there were several references to her not fitting in amongst her peers. She was trying to get herself in order and have her life together and as a reader with a much different lifestyle, it was hard for us to recognize at first, but she had her life in order by the end of the book. She had what she wanted as far as a boat and a place to hunt and she was ready to start a family and settle down. Margo didn’t talk much. She was alone a lot so there weren’t a lot of people to talk to. There were some people who wondered if she was mentally impaired. A reporter asked Campbell if Margo had Autism. Campbell didn’t purposefully create a character with Autism but has said it’s possible Margo does. It wasn’t her intention.
A lot of Margo’s luck seemed to come to her because she was beautiful. She never says this about herself, but the men in the story and her mother say she is. She might not have been able to find shelter with men if she wasn’t, but it seemed incongruent with her rugged lifestyle. If she’d spent as much time looking good as her mother did, she would have been a knock-out.
Each of the men who loved her had a different name for Margo. It was a nod to how she recreated herself each time she was with another guy. All the time, she was trying to recreate the best relationship she’d had with a man until then, the relationship she had with her grandfather. In this respect, Smoke was the closest she found. He and Fishbone were the only ones who didn’t try to have sex with her and some of us think it’s because they’re gay. It’s implied in the story that the two loved each other but Fishbone wouldn’t admit to it. It reminded me of Brokeback Mountain. It’s hard to admit to a different lifestyle if there’s a lot to lose and Fishbone stood to lose his family and didn’t want to risk it.
Paul and Margo’s father were both shot in the book. In the case of Paul, Margo was in control instead of her cousin. We wondered if she noticed this. Michael was at risk and she stepped in the way her cousin did to save someone she loved. The difference was that she pulled the trigger instead of watching.
The Indian was the most confusing character for many of us. He was a personification of the river, something Margo loved. He gave her money and a ride, much like the river. With him, she leaves the river for the first time and maybe she needed someone who reminded her of the river to get away from it. We found it funny that he was trying to find his culture and, though Margo was in no way a Native American, she was living the culture he was looking for better than anyone else he’d found.
I’ll be missing my book club for a few months due to my class falling on the same night until May. I’m sad about this, to be sure, but I’m sure they’ll be fine without me. I’ll miss writing these for a few months but they’ll be back! Until next time, write on.
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