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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
Once Upon a River - Bonnie Jo Campbell And once again this genre (F/SF/H/mystery) reader tries to expand her horizons...

My last attempt at horizon expansion was Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia, a novel that left me a little less-than-enthusiastic about anything that didn't involve spaceships, monsters, dragons and other flights of fancy.

Once Upon a River, however, was well worth the trip out of my comfort zone.

Sixteen-year-old Margo Crane is one of the more interesting female characters I've read in some time. At the beginning of the story, she is living with her father in a ramshackled house by the river. She's spent most of her life as the quintessential wild child, hunting and fishing with her father, grandfather and extended family. The inciting incident comes in the form of her rape at the hands of an uncle at a family gathering. Naturally, as her family are the kind of folks who keep Jerry Springer in business, they blame her for the rape. Now Margo, who grew up in a largely male milieu, isn't one to shy away from getting revenge. So some time later, she shoots the tip of that uncle's pecker, right off. Unfortunately, in the chaos that follows, her father is shot dead by a cousin.

Her only options at that point are live with the rapist uncle and his family or strike out on her own in search of the mother who abandoned her at fourteen. She chooses door number two. One might think that a sixteen-year-old girl would be ill-equipped to survive alone in the wilderness. Now, granted, large chunks of her time "alone," is actually spent living with her lovers, the men she encounters on her journey. The first man, Brian, is a fugitive from justice and the home they share lacks modern amenities like an indoor toilet. Brian has a job, and pays for some of Margo's necessities--like ammunition--but her ability with a rifle and shotgun (Annie Oakley is her hero), and other wilderness skills, put food on the table. When Brian eventually gets caught by the police--because he stupidly decided avenge Margo's rape by beating her uncle--Margo is forced to move on: forced by another rape, this time by Brian's brother.

The story continues on in this manner, with Margo finding respite with another man, only to be driven on by her past.

I found a few things striking about Margo. First, that she is so self-sufficient. Animal lovers may find this book a bit much, given the detail lavished on matters like gutting and skinning. Once Upon a River's snarky alternate title could be "A Girl's Guide to Killin', Skinnin' and Eatin' Varmints." Margo doesn't revel in her prey's death, but her approach is entirely pragmatic. When one of her lovers complains about her practice of skinning catfish alive, she is genuinely puzzled by his revulsion. After all, grandpa told her catfish don't feel anything. It never occurs to her that the fish's squirming might be a reaction to pain. (Thereafter, she lops off their heads prior to flaying.) Her strange lack of empathy makes her seem more animal than human. As does her matter-a-fact, unashamed approach to sex. She likes sex. When the opportunity arises, she doesn't hesitate to take it. It's refreshing to read a female character who doesn't carry the usual societal guilt regarding her sexuality.

For me, Margo's coming of age was less about the usual themes--loss of innocence, etc.--and more about her emergence from her wild, atavistic mindset to a self-aware, more empathetic being.

Once Upon a River is plainly written. It doesn't go for any of the odd tricks and devices seen in some literary novels. No haphazard timeline, no clever story-in-stories, etc. It progresses, like its river, from point A to point B.

I will be reading more of Bonnie Jo Campbell's books in the future.