Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River

I have a feeling that Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell is going to be for me this year what Anthropology of an American Girl was last year: a book I read in March that remained my favorite book of the year, my favorite to talk about, obsess about, and wholeheartedly recommend, for the whole damn year.

Once again, the main character is a young girl and the writing is beautiful and breathtaking, but the similarities end there. Margo, the protagonist of Once Upon a River, is a beautiful, striking-looking tomboy of 15 when we first meet her. She is twisting up like a weed from childhood to adulthood, curious about her power over men while also longing for her mother who abandoned her. After several deeply traumatic events, Margo is left alone, on the river she loves in rural Michigan. In her grandfather's teak wood boat, she takes off upriver in search of her mother, in search of somewhere to belong. Realizing that she can't survive alone, she uses the men she meets for protection and companionship. Though she has the gun skills and guts of her hero, Annie Oakley, Margo is still a little girl in the end, needing a home and a love that won't ask questions and won't leave her.

I knew from the first page that Bonnie Jo Campbell's writing was exquisite, her cadence melodic and language deliberate:

"Margo, named Margaret Louise, and her cousins knew the muddy water and the brisk current, knew the sand and silt between their toes, scooped it into plastic cottage cheese tubs and sherbet buckets and dribbled it through their fingers to build sagging stalagmites and soggy castles. They hollowed out the riverbanks, cut through soil and roots to create collapsing caves and tunnels...They built rafts from driftwood and baling twine. They learned to read upon the surface of the water evidence of distress below."

And after a few more pages, I was hooked on Margo. Just hooked.

Coming in July from W. W. Norton.

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