Bonnie Jo Campbell might well be called the Bard of Michigan — if only ”bard” didn’t sound so stuffy and ”Michigan” didn’t sound so ? nondescript as a global positioning device to locate such a vivid and mesmerizing novel as Once Upon a River. Fact is, Campbell is a bard, ?a full-throated singer whose melodies are odes to farms and water and livestock and fishing rods and rifles, and to hardworking folks who know the value of life as well as the randomness of life’s troubles. (American Salvage, Campbell’s excellent 2009 collection of Michigan-made stories, was a National Book Award finalist.)
The author’s extraordinary, unfancy protagonist ?is 16-year-old Margo Crane, a young woman who, even ?by YA-lit standards of feistiness and resourcefulness, is a new species of heroine. (By adult-lit standards, she?s downright revolutionary.) Margo contains multitudes: She’s a high school dropout and an uncanny marksman who identifies with Annie Oakley; she’s been abandoned by her self-absorbed mother; she has the finely honed survival skills of an Indian scout; she barely speaks, like a sprite; she’s stubborn and curious and strikingly beautiful; she’s forthrightly, unashamedly sexually ?active. After her father dies a violent death — in which ?she, in a way, plays a part — Margo literally paddles life’s currents in her beloved late grandfather’s boat, making her way along the (fictitious) Stark River, a waterway that flows into Kalamazoo (where the author lives).
What happens to Margo unfolds as a gripping story, old-fashioned in its fullness of event and character ?development. And all the while, an assured Campbell narrates in a graceful, gliding, confident voice ?that steers the action smoothly from one bend in the plot to the next — a ? demonstration of outstanding skills on the river of American literature. A