Two years ago, after a couple of decades of hard work, Bonnie Jo Campbell hit it big with American Salvage, a collection of tough stories placed in rural western Michigan–and published by a small university press (Wayne State)–that ended up short-listed for the nation’s largest literary awards, startling everyone, including the author. Campbell’s 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.”
That quote picks up the title’s hint that what we are dealing with here is more in the realm of myth than of any formulaic realism, even when the environment so lovingly described is very clearly the one we see outside our car windows when we drive down I-94. Margo sees things in the world around her, and she learns from them. She is also a crack shot (her only hero is Annie Oakley–the only book she knows is a child’s biography of that western hero). Here is something she learns from a deer she has just shot:
As the deer hit the ground, it seemed to sigh. From its mouth tumbled a gray bird, a mourning dove, with its dark eyes bulging and darting and then closing.
She wanted to cry out in surprise, complain that a deer couldn’t be trying to eat a bird. But she knew that it was better to stay calm and learn, to trust in what she saw. She nudged the deer’s chest with her foot to make sure it was dead, and a flurry erupted beside her. The dove woke up and launched itself into the air.
So Bonnie Jo Campbell has created a myth of our time, of a girl alone on a river, who learns, like the old wise women of legend, from the environment around her. Campbell is once again writing brilliantly against the grain.
Bonnie Jo Campbell reads from Once Upon the River at Nicola’s on Tuesday, July 19.