Bonnie Jo Campbell
stories had grit in them, and her characters were nourished by her genuine affection and admiration, even as she relished their eccentricities and recognized their vulnerabilities. The stories had a weight and a presence that couldn't be ignored.
Now Campbell has published Once Upon a River, a big novel that--even as its title indicates--picks up some big American ideas. The character who lives on this river is a sixteen-year-old girl, and its watershed is a slightly fictionalized version of the Kalamazoo River's, but it's a river that has been found before in American writing, one we move down both to discover and to move beyond ourselves.
Her protagonist is Margo Crane, a beautiful and solitary child, more at home in a rowboat than in front of a TV (I don't think Campbell ever even mentions television or the movies in this book!). To say that Margo is a member of "the rural poor" doesn't come near to the place where she lives. To say that she "lives off the grid" would indicate that she knows what the grid is--she doesn't. To say that she suffers neglect and abuse is to find easy labels for the complexities of her life. Although we know the time period is around 1980, there is no mention of movie stars, of popular music, of the rise of Reagan, of hostages in Iran. One character says to Margo, "You seem like a girl who was raised by wolves or something."
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