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Once Upon a River: A Novel Hardcover – July 5, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“With all the fixings of a Johnny Cash song―love, loss, redemption―Campbell captures these Michiganders and their earthy, brutal paradise in tales rich with insight and well worth the trip.” (Natasha Clark - Elle)

“This is a splendid story of survival in extremis, with a searingly original heroine.” (Parade)

“...the book is a violent but inspiring tale packed with colorful river dwellers, a working-class community of power company and metal workers, farmers, hunters and housewives....Campbell has created a character with an iron gut and a heart to match, recalling powerful heroines like Clara of Joyce Carol Oates' A Garden of Earthly Delights and Ree of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone.” (Liz Colville -

“Starred Review. A dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey. A female Huckleberry Finn. A wild-child-to-caring-woman story as intricately meshed with the natural life of the river as a myth. …she conveys all that Margo does, thinks, and feels with transfixing sensuous precision, from the jolt of a gun to the muscle burn of rowing a boat against the current to the weight of a man. From killing and skinning game to falling in with outlaws and finding refuge with kind if irascible strangers, Margo’s earthy education and the profound complexities of her timeless dilemmas are exquisitely rendered and mesmerizingly suspenseful. A glorious novel destined to entrance and provoke.” (Booklist)

“Mark Twain owns America's rivers, and writers who venture out on those waters are obliged to acknowledge his dominion. Bonnie Jo Campbell's tough and confident Once Upon a River, about a runaway teenager on Michigan's waterways, pays due homage to the bard of the Mississippi, but the novel also tells its own captivating story” (Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal)

“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.” (Lisa Schwarzbaum - Entertainment Weekly)

“It is, rather, an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.” (New York Times Book Review)

“American fiction waited a long time for Bonnie Jo Campbell to come along. A lot of us, not only women, were looking for a fictional heroine who would be deeply good, brave as a wolverine, never a cry baby, as able as Sacagawea, with a strong and unapologetic sexuality. We wanted to feel her roots in some ancient story, we wanted Diana the huntress, but not her virginity; we wanted a real human girl who we could believe had been suckled by bears, or wolves. To give us heroines like this, the god finally brought us Bonnie Jo Campbell, one of our most important and necessary writers, and Margo Crane, the central character of Once Upon A River, an outcast, feral beauty who can shoot like Annie Oakley, is her most poignant and mythic creation so far.” (Jaimy Gordon, National Book Award winner)

About the Author

Bonnie Jo Campbell teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. The author of Once Upon a River and American Salvage, she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 348 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (July 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393079890
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393079890
  • ASIN: 0393079899
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (131 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #606,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Campbell grew up on a small Michigan farm in a house her grandfather built. When she left home for the University of Chicago, her mother rented out her room; she has since hitchhiked across the U.S. and Canada, scaled the Swiss Alps on her bicycle, and traveled with the circus. She has led adventure tours in Russia and Eastern Europe. After earning a master's degree in mathematics, Campbell began writing fiction. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Western Michigan University, and now lives in Kalamazoo.

Her most recent book is the collection, American Salvage, about which Alan Cheuse, NPR reviewer has said, "In these stories about cold, lonely, meth-drenched, working-class Michigan life, there's a certain beauty reaching something like the sublimity of a D.H. Lawrence story." She is also the author of Women & Other Animals (University of Massachusetts, 2000), and the novel Q Road (Scribner, 2003). She has won the AWP award for short fictiona Pushcart prize, the Eudora Welty Prize (2009), and she was named a Barnes & Noble Great New Writer. Her fiction has recently been published in Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Alaska Review, Boulevard, and Witness. The New York Times has called her stories "Bitter but sweetened by humor," and Publisher's Weekly said Campbell details, "domestic worlds where Martha Stewart would fear to tread." She feeds donkeys and practices kobudo weapons arts in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Visit her website at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

107 of 109 people found the following review helpful By EJ on July 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book may very well stay in my mind for a long time. There seem to be so many issues and subtexts addressed that I have been thinking about it since I finished it two days ago.

This book is the story of Margo Crane, a young woman who lives near a river in a rural area of Michigan in the 1970's. But Margo, who is about 15 when the story begins, is no ordinary teenager. She can shoot, hunt, skin an animal, and does not appear to be afraid of much. Margo will need these skills when she finds herself forced to assert her independence earlier than most teenagers do.

Be aware that this is not really a plot-driven book. This is a painting with moving characters. The backdrop of the river provides a rich canvas on which the author can place Margo and the various people she meets. As she searches for something that she has lost, she experiences fear and violence; and like many young women of her age, she often mistakes sex for love.

There were times when I struggled with this book. It is a heavy story and doesn't start to show some rays of sunshine until the very end. However, the deeper themes explored in this book are worth sticking with it. It is truly a unique story of growing up, and it raises the very legitimate question of whether we all need to have the suburban house and picket fence to be happy. The book also explores how judgmental we can be about the way that others choose to live, simply because they are different from us. The characters in this book find contentment all around them just by paying attention to life. And these are just some of the issues explored; in reality there is a kaleidoscope of concepts from which to choose for further examination after closing the book.

This is a strong recommend, but with the caveat that this is not a "beach read". This is an intense book that will keep you thinking. I know that Margo will be on my mind for quite awhile.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Linda Linguvic HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on July 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I live in New York City and live a life which is the direct polar opposite of that of Margo Crane, the 16-year old heroine in this book. Hunting and fishing are part of her hardscrabble life. And so is the family feud rooted in a relative's abuse that leaves her father dead and her life in danger. She then needs to flee to safety through a rural landscape that challenges her survival skills. She follows the river, sometimes by boat and sometimes on foot, trying to stay alive and also trying to find her mother who had abandoned the family several years before.

Margo's heroine is Annie Oakley, and indeed she is as good a shot. The descriptions of how she kills animals made me wince. But I also had the highest admiration for these hunting and butchering skills that she seemed to take for granted. Her travels throw her in contact with several men, some who help her and others who just try to use her. Often there is violence. Other times there is caring and respect. Always, she lives her life as if she, herself, is a hunted animal.

Eventually she meets a feisty old man who continues to smoke even though he's on an oxygen tank and is in a wheelchair. They develop a unique kind of friendship and how it all turns out left me feeling that her future would be positive.

I really loved this book which taught me ways to survive that I never thought about before. It also introduced me to a character who I surprisingly identified with, my eyes glued to the page as I followed her many adventures, and who made me rejoice at the book's optimistic conclusion.
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45 of 54 people found the following review helpful By James Hiller VINE VOICE on July 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
.... and parts of it I did, but overall, this book ultimately was a disappointing, and strangely enough, compelling read.

"Once Upon a River" tells the story of Margo Crane, a river-girl raised to be a part of the land where she was born, into a family of ne'er-do-wells that treat her and everyone else pretty badly. At the start of the novel, Margo suffers a sexual assault from her uncle that is hideous, and yet she doesn't see it that way. After learning of the event from a spying blabbermouth, Margo's father decides to take justice into her own hands, with the predictable result. Margo then finds herself alone, yearning for the mother that ran away from the environ Margo loved. Deciding to find her, Margo takes a boat and paddles upstream to begin her adventures.

There is much to like and admire in this book. First, the character of Margo is fresh and exciting. I loved the many scenes in which she decides to take care of herself, instead of solely relying on others. Margo's wilderness skills are literally a lifesaver as she lives off the land that feeds her. Margo's skill with a rifle, and her survivalist smarts, compel this character into something quite new and exciting: a heroine for herself. Another compelling character is an old man she meets along the river, named Smoke. Dying of lung cancer, Smoke's just as determined to live his life as he sees fit as Margo. In fact, Campbell is a master of character in the story; not one comes across as phony or false, they all breathe reality.

Why the three stars then? The story itself, and the ending of it, failed to grab me as a reader. While the first part of the book is compelling as she escapes her life and goes upstream, the second half, in which she travels back downstream, starts to disappoint a bit.
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