Bonnie Jo Campbell’s second novel (after Q Road) cribs from The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Winter’s Bone in its portrayal of a stubborn teenage girl traveling on the knife-edge of danger. With vengeance on her mind, rough-and-tumble Michigander Margo Crane cuts a wide swath through those who set out to help her, avenging the wrong done to her family on everyone who trusts her.
After Margo’s uncle Cal sexually assaults her at a family gathering, she and her father Bernard are ostracized in their rural river community, forced to pick up odd jobs and hunt to make ends meet. When Margo’s attempt to take revenge on her uncle results in Bernard’s death, she takes to the river rather than living in Cal’s house with her attacker and her judgmental cousins, preferring to row toward the town her mother lived in after leaving Bernard. Skilled at hunting, fishing, and wilderness survival, but too willing to trust, Margo seeks shelter with a series of men who live along the river poaching, dealing drugs, and scamming each other. Whenever they demand more than she seems capable of providing, she takes to her boat, working toward finding her mother while avoiding the deadening influences of school and family.
Based primarily on the story “Family Reunion” from Campbell’s 2010 National Book Award finalist anthology American Salvage, Once Upon A River envisions a runaway whose sense of self-preservation lags behind her practical skills, and who lives in surroundings where the innate danger is readily apparent to everyone except herself. Margo moves through her world as an unwitting wrecking ball acting upon the orderly lawlessness of river society, and once wronged, she doesn’t see an end to her journey—only an array of progress and setbacks to an unknown destination.
As an unforgettable character, Margo drives Once Upon A River, but the weaknesses of her perspective start to limit the narrative once it calls upon her to rise above her scrabbling ways and become more of a participant than a traveler, as she seeks shelter with a man who dreams of dying in his river cabin. Without creating a compelling case for her heroine choosing to ground herself, Campbell allows Margo to waver without justification over decisions that might have come easy to her earlier. Ultimately, Once Upon A River loses trust in its own creation in a way that makes it hard to believe in her fate, though not the gritty journey it follows.