River odyssey with a teen rape victim who can shoot

By Ann Harleman
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

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“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms.’’ Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in “Letters to a Young Poet’’ could easily serve as the epigraph to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new novel.

The beating heart of “Once Upon a River’’ is its heroine, 16-year-old Margo Crane, who lives almost entirely in and for the natural world. “Before she could answer a question posed in the classroom, she always had to figure out how a thing she was being asked connected to all the other things she knew. She might answer hours later, when she was alone in her boat studying water bugs on the river’s surface. It was easier to practice math problems in her head while she rowed, easier to understand how cells divided while she was underwater.’’

Raised on the Stark River, Margo swims, rows, fishes, and hunts as well as any man, and better than most. Her passion is shooting. The “intense focusing’’ it demands brings her peace, makes her feel “weightless and free.’’ Campbell’s tautly lyrical descriptions of Margo with a rifle make you feel what it would be like to be a crack shot. “With her first shot, the kick of the thing knocked her back. After that, she jammed it tightly into her shoulder and absorbed the recoil with her whole body. She loaded and shot until she knew she would be bruised . . . each blast moved through her and settled and soothed her.’’

Margo’s gifts - which also include compelling physical beauty - are her downfall. At the novel’s opening, her Uncle Cal rapes her. Though she resolves to remain silent, her cousin sees and tells; Margo’s father, obsessed with bringing her uncle to justice, loses his job at the family metal works. In revenge, Margo shoots Cal in the genitals, and Cal’s son Billy takes his own revenge by killing Margo’s father. Alone in the world - “severed’’ from her extended family, who blame her for what has happened - Margo takes to the river in her grandfather’s boat. “Without her father, she was bound to no one, and with the water flowing around her, she was absolutely alive.’’ Like her heroine, Annie Oakley, she resolves to depend on no one. She has her beloved boat and the cherished Marlin rifle she stole from her Uncle Cal.

From this point on, “Once Upon a River’’ assumes a picaresque structure. Margo’s river journey - the official point of which is to find the mother who abandoned her years before - lasts more than a year. Though Margo resolves to be the captain of her fate, the river and the life it sustains - flora and fauna, animal and human - propel the story. (You will be delighted with the hand-drawn map that traces Margo’s course up and down the Stark and Kalamazoo rivers.) She undergoes many tests of her ability to survive, the most perilous coming not from the wilderness but from its human inhabitants. Raped yet again, forced to kill a man who threatens the man she loves, cast out yet again as a result, Margo fortifies herself with thoughts of Annie Oakley and the increasingly doubtful prospect of her mother’s eventual welcome.

There are more trials - and worse - to come, which I’ll leave you to discover. “Live the questions now,’’ Rilke said. “Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.’’ At home in the world of action, exquisitely attuned to survival, Margo has a long way to go to know herself from the inside out. Practiced in the art of losing, she must take on the far more daunting task of learning to connect.

But “Once Upon a River’’ is by no means dark. Campbell’s sensuous prose vividly evokes the natural world and brings us inside Margo’s experience of it. This novel - Campbell’s fourth book of fiction and a prequel to her first, “Q Road’’ - is alive with seasons, times of day, weather; it’s bursting with creatures. And Margo inhabits her body in a way so profound and intense that it brings her deep joy. Literary forerunners of this novel, from “The Odyssey’’ to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’’ will already have occurred to you; I’d like to add a less obvious one. Margo’s joyous sensuality and irrepressible optimism put me in mind of Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath.’’ Not quite 18 when “Once Upon a River’’ ends, Margo has a long way to go before she, too, can say that she has had her world in her time. But she’s definitely got the goods to get there.

Ann Harleman is the author of two story collections, “Happiness’’ and “Thoreau’s Laundry,’’ and two novels, “Bitter Lake’’ and “The Year She Disappeared.’’ She can be reached through her website,

By Bonnie Jo Campbell
Norton, 348 pp., $25.95