Once Upon A River

Guns and girls?  Only Annie Oakley comes to mind, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s sharpshooting young heroine in Once Upon A River, but the Charles Dickens themes of  “ignorance and want” seem to pervade  Margo Crane’s life along a Michigan river.

Margaret Louise (Margo) Crane is a quietly beautiful fifteen year old who prefers to shoot animals, fish with her grandpa, and connect with the Michigan backwoods.  Before her mother runs off with another man, she gives her a book

Annie Oakley

about Annie Oakley, and Margo decides to frame her life around the Western sharpshooter.  Living with her father, the only hints of homespun comfort come from across the river in her Aunt’s kitchen, but at the annual family Thanksgiving picnic, her uncle lures her into a barn – promising to show her how to skin a deer – and rapes her.  A year later, when she takes her revenge by shooting off the end of her uncle’s penis, her father is shot and dies in the ensuing scuffle.  Suddenly, at sixteen, Margo is on her own – with only her gun and the river for companions.

Rowing upstream in her grandfather’s teak boat, Margo goes in search of her deserting mother, who answers her letters with false postponements and avoidance.  Along her journey to find her mother and herself, Margo meets an assortment of men who take advantage of her beauty, youth, and need for comfort.  Sadly, her mother is not there to advise her, and her life becomes a series of unavoidable miscues.

“She folded up the letter she’d been writing to her mother – in it she’d asked what Luanne thought about being loyal to a man, what it was worth.  All these questions she was asking her ma added up to one question: how should Margo live?”

As Margo drifts from an older married man who eventually goes to jail for assault, to his brother – a drug dealer hiding his stash in their cabin, to a young divorced yuppie looking to find himself on the river, to a math professor searching for his Indian roots – Margo slowly grows up, but her life never seems to get better.  She is always ready to run, never feeling safe.   Inevitably, she gets pregnant and finds her mother, whose response to Margo’s plea for help is:

What about fun? What about pleasure? I think those things are the purpose of life.”

An old man on his deathbed finally gives Margo some comfort as she, in turn, helps him through his last months – a reminder of her grandfather.  In the end, her resilience and courage lead her to

“decide how she wanted to live…{learning} everything she could from people who were willing to share what they knew.  She would use the tools she was given to make her own kind of life.”

A combination of Huck Finn, Annie Oakley, and Tammy on the River, Campbell’s heroine is a survivor.    Once Upon A River backtracks to Margo’s story from one of Campbell’s earlier novels.  To find out what happens to Margo’s daughter, Rachel, read Campbell’s Q Road (2002) – if you can take more misery and strong- willed determination.