Summer reads can be frothy adventures, easy to follow even in the midst of a hectic family vacation; or they can be heftier, hard-to-put-down epics that ask us for hours of silence and solitude. Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell's second novel, easily falls into the latter category. Set in Michigan in the late 20th century on a fictional river aptly named the Stark, the book is a violent but inspiring tale packed with colorful river dwellers, a working-class community of power company and metal workers, farmers, hunters and housewives. At the center of the story is Margo Crane, a teenage girl with an expert aim and an exceedingly messed up family, who finds much more to admire in Annie Oakley than in her own female relatives.
Spending her childhood learning how to hunt from her devoted father, Bernard Crane, and his lascivious half-brother, Cal Murray, Margo shows us what can happen when a gun becomes a person's most trusted companion. Family feuds between the Cranes and the Murrays easily turn gruesome; the men "growl at each other like bears" and women are often what inspire their aggression. Margo herself plays a significant role in the violence that befalls this clan. Having learned the law of the land from her forebears, Margo believes firepower is the only way to defend, avenge and survive. When her parents abandon her in the midst of her adolescence, Margo relies on hunting skills and a host of men, some more dependable than others, and is long unable to extricate herself from a legacy of oppression, rivalry, deception and distrust.
Many of the circumstances that Margo finds herself in are heartbreaking, but Campbell has created a character with an iron gut and a heart to match, recalling powerful heroines like Clara of Joyce Carol Oates' A Garden of Earthly Delights and Ree of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone. Margo has no qualms about using men, because they use her. She is frustrated by the way men label her and come up with fantastical or idealized ways of describing her. "She wasn't a wolf girl or a murderer or an heiress," she tells herself, "or a dream. She was a girl who needed some matches and boat gas." Being an impressionable young girl, she puts up with men for too long, but her end goal is sound: complete self-sufficiency, the inevitable, prideful product of being ditched by her self-absorbed mother. The past shadows her, driving her to suspicion, detachment and peregrination. But while these may be familiar states for Margo, we're given hope that they're not permanent ones.
Occasionally, the nonstop plot developments in Once Upon a River, many of which are marked by the appearance of some man or another, are hard to believe, hindered by slap-dash dialogue and hastily painted scenes — particularly those involving Michael, whose pretty house on the river conveniently provides Margo a comfortable life for as long as she wants it. But Margo is attractive, gutsy and mysterious; perhaps this is all it takes to get an impetuous but earnest proposal of marriage from a man, in fiction or in reality.
Embedded within the man-driven episodes are plenty of impressive passages, and even some strong, respectable good guys. Campbell is particularly adept at the mundane words exchanged between teenagers, and she uses Margo's above-it-all point of view to capture her mental resilience and to cast a punishing eye on any (usually male) character deserving of it. In one amusing passage, Margo watches a new lover as he falls into a drunken stupor: "She saw his eyes grow red and his lids droop. She watched his shoulders relax until he was slumping. Finally he tipped over into a relaxed fetal position, still clutching the empty pint bottle in his right hand." While this is happening, Margo is cleaning her gun, sober, incapable of getting herself into such an embarrassing state. This provides a swift but complete portrait of Margo, whose wits and determination eventually give her enough strength to outrun her past.