Do you ever have those awkward moments when you zone out and realize too late that you were staring at someone the whole time? Do you find yourself wanting to better articulate your thoughts during a conversation? Are you the kind of person who, after spending time out with people, needs to retreat to a quiet place alone to recharge and analyze the events of the day? It’s okay. Margo, the main character of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s national bestseller Once Upon a River, does too.
Set in rural western Michigan, Once Upon a River provides a detailed account of Margo’s journey to maturity. After she gets revenge on her uncle for raping her during a family picnic a year prior, she then leaves her home and rows up the Stark River in search of her absent mother, Luanne. Along the way, Margo falls in and out of both romantic and platonic relationships with people she’s known since childhood and with complete strangers, all the while figuring out what it means to be herself. Throughout the story, Margo notes the uncanny resemblances her life has to Annie Oakley’s, her role model both in vocation and womanhood, but Margo must eventually decide how much of her life will mimic Oakley’s and how much will play out as her own.
Having heard from various friends and colleagues that Margo’s character didn’t speak much throughout the novel, I was curious to see how Campbell would pull this off. Not two pages in, I got my answer, where a passage lays out just how quiet Margo is and how that accommodates the story. Campbell writes:
Margo was the only one [Grandpa Murray] would take along when he fished or checked his animal traps because she could sit without speaking for hours in the prow of The River Rose, his small teak boat. Margo learned that when she was tempted to speak or cry out, she should, instead, be still and watch and listen.
In these two sentences we learn Margo’s biggest character nuance and see that the imagery of the riverside wilderness is owed largely to her quiet observation. Where other characters see Margo’s silence as stupidity, we see how observant she is of the nature that surrounds her, and in a way, building the setting builds Margo.
The setting Campbell creates in this book is stunning; it’s rich with images of the Michigan outdoors. One of my favorite lines describes the Stark River: “The yearly floods scrubbed the muskrat caves, drowned the moles, carried away burn barrels, wore away land, and swept clear portions of the earth.” Here, the brutality of nature and the abundance of human and animal life are wrapped tightly together in a neat passage of time. There are other great descriptive one-liners of wildlife sprinkled throughout the book, like the swamps “croaking with bullfrogs” and the passing shadows of red-tailed hawks soaring high above the river. But amidst the vivid detail, there were times when, during a description of a given area, several animals would be listed one after the other, and rather than convince me of a richly populated ecosystem, these lists came across as a dry tour de force of the author’s research.
Due to Margo’s silent personality, she’s as good at people watching as she is at studying her environment, which complements Campbell’s superb ability to introduce and develop characters, whether it’s the slew of fourteen relatives and family friends in the opening twenty-two pages, or the much deeper characters in the latter half of the book. Part of what makes the characters so effective is the small confessions that reveal just how deeply they feel about someone. Take Margo’s father, Crane—a man who relies heavily on alcohol to cope with his absent wife and the rape of his daughter—who hit Margo one day while inebriated. After he came to his senses the next day, he gave up drinking entirely. Or when Brian, a friend of Margo’s grandfather, gets blackout drunk and tells his brother Paul how sorry he is for having shot him in the eye with a BB gun and blinded him as a child; this revelation shows that Brian’s shooting accident is something that weighs on him more than most other characters would be able to tell.
I don’t normally favor books with such a heavy emphasis on description, but in this case, Once Upon a River is a welcome exception. Its account of Margo’s personal trials and self-discoveries took me by surprise, and I’m led to compare her life to the course of nature: easing gently along yet inexorably forward and punctuated by sudden outbursts of action that—even though life will find a way to resume its rhythm—will leave everything changed forever.