Wild Water: 'River' Runs Deep With Ferocity, Heart

Cover of Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Once Upon a River
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
Hardcover, 352 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List Price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

Summer reads can be frothy adventures, easy to follow even in the midst of a hectic family vacation; or they can be heftier, hard-to-put-down epics that ask us for hours of silence and solitude. Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell's second novel, easily falls into the latter category. Set in Michigan in the late 20th century on a fictional river aptly named the Stark, 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. At the center of the story is Margo Crane, a teenage girl with an expert aim and an exceedingly messed up family, who finds much more to admire in Annie Oakley than in her own female relatives.

Spending her childhood learning how to hunt from her devoted father, Bernard Crane, and his lascivious half-brother, Cal Murray, Margo shows us what can happen when a gun becomes a person's most trusted companion. Family feuds between the Cranes and the Murrays easily turn gruesome; the men "growl at each other like bears" and women are often what inspire their aggression. Margo herself plays a significant role in the violence that befalls this clan. Having learned the law of the land from her forebears, Margo believes firepower is the only way to defend, avenge and survive. When her parents abandon her in the midst of her adolescence, Margo relies on hunting skills and a host of men, some more dependable than others, and is long unable to extricate herself from a legacy of oppression, rivalry, deception and distrust.

Bonnie Jo Campbell is also the author of Women and Other Animals, a collection of short stories about women in rural and small-town Michigan. i

Bonnie Jo Campbell is also the author of Women and Other Animals, a collection of short stories about women in rural and small-town Michigan. John Campbell/ hide caption

itoggle caption John Campbell/
Bonnie Jo Campbell is also the author of Women and Other Animals, a collection of short stories about women in rural and small-town Michigan.

Bonnie Jo Campbell is also the author of Women and Other Animals, a collection of short stories about women in rural and small-town Michigan.

John Campbell/

Many of the circumstances that Margo finds herself in are heartbreaking, but 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. Margo has no qualms about using men, because they use her. She is frustrated by the way men label her and come up with fantastical or idealized ways of describing her. "She wasn't a wolf girl or a murderer or an heiress," she tells herself, "or a dream. She was a girl who needed some matches and boat gas." Being an impressionable young girl, she puts up with men for too long, but her end goal is sound: complete self-sufficiency, the inevitable, prideful product of being ditched by her self-absorbed mother. The past shadows her, driving her to suspicion, detachment and peregrination. But while these may be familiar states for Margo, we're given hope that they're not permanent ones.

Occasionally, the nonstop plot developments in Once Upon a River, many of which are marked by the appearance of some man or another, are hard to believe, hindered by slap-dash dialogue and hastily painted scenes — particularly those involving Michael, whose pretty house on the river conveniently provides Margo a comfortable life for as long as she wants it. But Margo is attractive, gutsy and mysterious; perhaps this is all it takes to get an impetuous but earnest proposal of marriage from a man, in fiction or in reality.

Embedded within the man-driven episodes are plenty of impressive passages, and even some strong, respectable good guys. Campbell is particularly adept at the mundane words exchanged between teenagers, and she uses Margo's above-it-all point of view to capture her mental resilience and to cast a punishing eye on any (usually male) character deserving of it. In one amusing passage, Margo watches a new lover as he falls into a drunken stupor: "She saw his eyes grow red and his lids droop. She watched his shoulders relax until he was slumping. Finally he tipped over into a relaxed fetal position, still clutching the empty pint bottle in his right hand." While this is happening, Margo is cleaning her gun, sober, incapable of getting herself into such an embarrassing state. This provides a swift but complete portrait of Margo, whose wits and determination eventually give her enough strength to outrun her past.

Excerpt: 'Once Upon A River'

Cover of Once Upon A River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Once Upon a River
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
Hardcover, 352 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List Price: $25.95

Chapter One

The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane's heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salamanders in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count the herons in the heronry beside the Murrayville cemetery. She tied up her boat and followed shallow feeder streams to collect crayfish, watercress, and tiny wild strawberries. Her feet were toughened against sharp stones and broken glass. When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her.

She waded through serpentine tree roots to grab hold of water snakes and let the river clean the wounds from the nonvenomous bites. She sometimes tricked a snapping turtle into clamping its jaws down hard on a branch so she could carry it home to Grandpa Murray. He boiled the meat to make soup and told the children that eating snapping turtle was like eating dinosaur. Margo was the only one the old man would take along when he fished or checked his animal traps because she could sit without speaking for hours in the prow of The River Rose, his small teak boat. Margo learned that when she was tempted to speak or cry out, she should, instead, be still and watch and listen. The old man called her Sprite or River Nymph. Her cousins called her Nympho, though not usually within the old man's hearing.

Margo, named Margaret Louise, and her cousins knew the muddy water and the brisk current, knew the sand and silt between their toes, scooped it into plastic cottage cheese tubs and sherbet buckets and dribbled it through their fingers to build sagging stalagmites and soggy castles. They hollowed out the riverbanks, cut through soil and roots to create collapsing caves and tunnels. If any kid stood too long in a soft spot and sank above his knees, he just had to holler, and somebody pulled him free. They spent summers naked or nearly naked, harvesting night crawlers from the mossy woods and frogs' eggs from goo in underwater snags. They built rafts from driftwood and baling twine. They learned to read upon the surface of the water evidence of distress below. Once, when Margo was eight and her favorite cousin, Junior, was nine, they rescued an uncle who'd fallen in drunk.

They all fished the snags at the edges of the river for bluegills, sunfish, and rock bass, though they avoided the area just downstream of the Murray Metal Fabricating plant, where a drainpipe released a mixture of wastewater, machine oil, and solvents into the river—some of the fish there had strange tumors, bubbled flesh around their lips, a fraying at their gills. On certain windy days, the clay-colored smoke from the shop wafted along the river, reached them on their screen porches, and even when they closed their windows, the smoke entered their houses through floorboards and the gaps around their doors.

The Murrays were a stubborn tribe, and Bernard Crane was no less stubborn for being born the bastard son of Dorothy Crane and Old Man Murray during his bout of infidelity, forgiven in time by a wife who, despite (or perhaps because of) her forgiving nature, died young. The old man begged Dorothy Crane to give their child his last name, but she put on the birth certificate father unknown. Some said Dorothy was part Indian and that was why Bernard was so small, and others said that she had begrudged her baby sufficient milk at her breast because the old man would not leave his lawful wife, while others, including Cal Murray, denied that Bernard was in any way a Murray. Years later, however, when Bernard Crane, whom everyone called simply Crane, and his wife, Luanne, gave birth to a beautiful green-eyed daughter, a spell of reconciliation was cast across the river, and all the Murrays claimed Margo. The girl's mother even enjoyed the favor of the other women for a while. More often, they referred to Luanne as a "free spirit." They did not mean it as a compliment.

When the weather allowed, Margo and her cousins swam all day long. Even when drought made the river shallow enough to walk across, they swam to the big Murray farmhouse on the north bank, where Aunt Joanna was hanging laundry or baking bread and where Uncle Cal might let them shoot skeet with shotguns or plink targets with .22 rifles. Swam straight across to the heavily shaded Crane house, where Luanne was often lying flat in a reclining chair at the end of the floating dock in the only sun on the place, wearing an unfastened bikini. Luanne lay browning like one of Joanna's loaves of bread, lifting her head and opening her eyes only to drink the watered-down white wine she kept in a mason jar full of melting ice. Her scent of cocoa butter drifted out onto the water, and the boys could not take their eyes off her.

In the evenings, Margo rowed, swam, or floated home, and her mother woke up, anticipated the girl's return, and stood, perhaps unsteadily, on the dock, holding a towel for Margo, her favorite towel, oversized, with a pattern of jungle greens. Margo's teeth would chatter as her mother wrapped and hugged her. Only then would Margo smell the sweet breath of wine inside the cloud of cocoa butter. Luanne would say, "Hold on, Margaret Louise," as they made their way in an embrace down the dock, along the bank, and into the house. They checked Margo for bloodsuckers on the screen porch and doused any stragglers with salt. After they had both showered, Luanne might go to bed with her bottle of wine and watch TV, or begin her twelve-hour sleep, but Margo curled on the couch and waited for her father to get home from the second shift at Murray Metal Fabricating, sometimes thumbing through her book about Annie Oakley, whose somber face she never tired of studying. Annie looked so natural with her rifles and shotguns, and it seemed to Margo that any girl would want a long gun at her side. When she'd said that to her ma, Luanne had said tiredly that she didn't know how Annie Oakley could have "fired so many times without killing anyone, without killing the whole damned lot of them," and Margo hadn't brought it up again.

After a big storm or a sudden thaw, the river could become a passionate surge, dragging along debris from upstream: ill-secured boats or pieces of floats and docks that had been dashed against trees. All manner of stuff might be dragged up onto the riverbank—fifty-five-gallon drums, mildewed buoys on nylon ropes, animal carcasses. And the floodwaters washed away what the Murrays had not secured or could not secure: sand from the sandbox, pig shit from the half dozen pigs in the pasture, garden stakes and tomato cages left out from the previous summer, toys and dog dishes, thousands of shotgun shells and bullet casings from beside the barn. The yearly floods scrubbed the muskrat caves, drowned the moles, carried away burn barrels, wore away land, and swept clear portions of the earth. One February after an early snowmelt, the Cranes lost a whole cord of firewood that was stacked too close to the water's edge.

The death of Margo's grandpa, when she was fourteen, hit the whole family like one of those late winter floods, chilling everything, washing away that old generation and whatever invisible glue and strings had been holding the Murrays together. Margo had stayed by Grandpa's sickbed on the sunporch whenever they'd let her. After the funeral, she went out with Uncle Cal, loaded his lever-action .22 Marlin like Annie Oakley's with fifteen long-rifle cartridges, threaded her arm into the sling, and took aim through the iron sights. After her first shot went awry, Cal suggested she sit cross-legged and pull the sling tighter. The following fourteen shots hit the paper target just left of center in a tight cluster. Twelve of the shots created a single hole a little more than half an inch across. "What the hell was that?" Cal said, running his finger over the torn paper. "I've never shot like that in my life. That's unholy." Uncle Cal claimed credit for teaching her to shoot, but while Margo had felt his guidance, she had felt just as strongly the guidance of the gun itself. It held her steady, and then sadness perfected her aim.

When Cal Murray took over as president of Murray Metal Fabricating, he called upon his sons to work in the summers rather than exploring the river all day. At about this time, Margo's mother began to put on makeup and disappear for hours in the afternoons. She always returned home at dusk, until one July evening when Margo found herself alone at the dock. Her oversized minnow net contained a giant puffball, white as the moon, bigger than her own head. Margo rose from the river, stood on the dock holding the skull-white mushroom, which she would slice and fry for dinner. The Cranes' little house was dark. When she turned on the kitchen light, she found the note on the table. She read and reread it, but could not crack its code. So many times, Luanne had said she could not bear living in this place, but there she had always been. Margo scratched her ankle and found a fat bloodsucker. She didn't have the patience to shrivel it with salt. Instead she took a butcher knife, smashed the end of the wooden handle into the creature's head, and twisted until the bloody pulp fell onto the kitchen tile.

Maybe the decline of Murray Metal Fabricating after Old Man Murray died and the resulting unemployment in Murrayville was inevitable, given the economic trends of the late 1970s, or maybe Cal's bad management was to blame. Maybe what happened with Uncle Cal and Margo the day after Thanksgiving was bound to happen, too. After Margo finished washing a second sinkful of dishes, her aunt Joanna kicked her out of the kitchen.

"Go out and join the party, hang out with the other kids," Joanna said. "Shoo."

"Let me go change into jeans," Margo said. She was wearing a long-sleeved dress, something Joanna made her wear when she went along to church, even if it was just to donate canned food. The dress was not bad on top, but it hung below her knees.

"What's wrong with dressing like a girl?" Joanna said. "Go out there and tell your cousin Junior to stop playing rock-and-roll records. Give us some country music."

The party was in full swing, and "Smoke on the Water" was coming over speakers mounted on the trees. Joanna led her to the door, pushed her jacket into her arms, and sent her out into the cold. Margo hiked up her dress and folded it over at the waist to shorten it. This was the first party without Grandpa Murray, and Margo missed his big presence. She wandered across the frozen grass to her father, who was engrossed in a conversation about welding. She couldn't get his attention, so she moved to where the roast pig had been ravaged. The uncle that Margo had saved from drowning, Hank Slocum, was cutting away ribbons of pork and putting them in a big aluminum pan. Margo watched a long white bone appear as he trimmed the meat close. Hank Slocum lived with his wife and their six kids in a pair of camping trailers a half mile upstream on the Murray property. Julie Slocum, who was thirteen and still a tattletale, was flirting with their cousin Junior, who sat cross-legged at the record player, ignoring her. Billy Murray, a few months older than Margo, was bossing around some little kids, including his twin brothers, Toby and Tommy. While she watched, he instructed them to crawl on hands and knees to where the men were tossing horseshoes and to spit into their foamy draft beers. The men didn't notice, and each time one of those men tipped a plastic cup to his lips, Billy and the kids shrieked with pleasure. Margo was lying with the black Lab, Moe, having a conversation of growls and barks, when her uncle Cal nudged her rib with the toe of his boot. "Hey, Sprite, if you want to go hunting, first you're going to have to learn to skin a deer."

Margo stood and tugged the dress up at the waist again. Cal was known to compliment the girls if they looked pretty, so they all tried to.

"If you want to learn right now, I'll teach you." He was slurring his words.

Though her father had told her to stay away from men when they were drinking—himself included—Margo followed her uncle Cal into the whitewashed shed. She smoothed her hair to make sure it wasn't sticking up. The woodstove had gone out, but the room was still warm, so Cal took off his jacket and tossed it on the dirt floor. She hadn't expected Cal to pull her against him, and when he did, she tripped and knocked him into the gutted carcass, making it swing, releasing a blood smell into the air.

When Cal kissed the top of her head, Margo pressed her face into his big chest, felt his thick flannel shirt against her cheek. She loved the leathery smell of him, though it was tinged with pork and beer. He reached down, tightened his arms around her, and lifted her whole body so she was in front of his face, something he might have done when she was a little kid. She had just turned fifteen.

"You want to come out hunting with me tomorrow? Five a.m.?"

Margo nodded, though she had seen the horror on Aunt Joanna's face when Cal suggested a few days ago that he would take Margo hunting on opening day rather than one of their five sons. Margo kicked her legs as though swimming.

While still holding her a foot above the ground, Cal kissed her mouth. He whispered, "How's that? Is that so bad?"

Margo swallowed a gasp. She had kissed a few guys in the stairwell at school and had kissed a friend of Junior's in the abandoned cabin upstream, had tried out all kinds of kissing—soft and hard, fast and slow. When they were sure Junior was passed out, Margo and that friend of his had undressed. Margo thought nobody knew she'd gone all the way with him, but maybe Cal knew. Cal moved her in his arms so he was carrying her like a bride over a threshold. He was the handsomest man—her mother had said it all the time. When Cal laid Margo down on his big jacket on the dirt floor, Margo tried to keep breathing normally. When Cal's hands were on her, she reminded herself of when he was first showing her how to shoot, adjusting her hands and arms, telling her to press, not pull the trigger. Firing the gun should come as a surprise to the shooter, he said, though everything he was doing was moving him toward it.

"You're so lovely," he whispered. "It's unholy."

Cal was the finest man in this town, her mother had said, but where was her mother to explain what was happening now? Margo knew it was all messed up, and she knew her father would be furious, but she didn't say no. Saying no would be like releasing a bullet from the chamber—there would be no way to take it back. Shouting no was something she might practice, once this was over, but for now she would trust Cal. The jacket beneath her head slipped, so when she turned to look at the door, her ear was pressed against the dirt. She smelled blood and mold and mouse piss as Cal moved on top of her. The golden light from the window to the west was warm on her cheek, and she saw a girl's face in the window. At first Margo thought it was her own reflection, but it was Julie Slocum. The girl's hand went to her mouth, and then she disappeared.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Cal said afterward.

She knew Cal didn't expect her to say anything. Nobody ever expected her to say anything. Not even her teachers. Before she could answer a question posed in the classroom, she always had to figure out how a thing she was being asked connected to all the other things she knew. She might answer hours later, when she was alone in her boat studying water bugs on the river's surface. It was easier to practice math problems in her head while she rowed, easier to understand how cells divided while she was underwater.

Had it been so bad? Margo slipped her underpants back on. She thought that if she didn't concentrate on her breathing, she would forget to breathe. She looked around to see what else had changed. Not the deer carcass, not the cobwebs or the blood smell. Uncle Cal smiled his same smile. She needed to get out of this shed, to look at it from outside and figure out what had just happened.

Then Margo's father burst through the door. Cal was getting up, buttoning his fly, when her father, barely taller than Margo, kicked open the door and kicked Cal in the mouth with a work boot. Margo heard bones crunch, and two red-and-white nuggets—Uncle Cal's teeth—bounced on the ground. The half-brothers, famous for their tempers, growled at each other like bears. Cal punched Crane in the jaw hard enough that Margo heard a bone break.

Aunt Joanna entered the shed just after Margo's daddy head-butted Cal hard enough to crack a rib. A dozen or more people gathered and watched, some from inside the shed, others through the open door or the dirty window. Julie Slocum slipped in and rubbed her hand over Margo's hair. Margo could smell kerosene on her from the space heaters her family used in their camping trailers. Cal lay on the ground now, and Joanna's long spine curved over his body. She wiped blood from his mouth with a handkerchief and whispered something angrily to him. Then Cal whispered his defense to Joanna, but everyone went suddenly quiet. "The little slut lured me in here, Jo, but I swear I never touched her."

Everyone stayed still and quiet until Julie backed away toward the door. Someone coughed, and people began to murmur.

Joanna looked at Margo. "Damn you," she said.

Margo squinted at Cal, studied him as though over the Marlin's iron sights, waiting for an explanation or a wink, even, that would suggest he had not meant what he'd said. It had started with the death of Margo's grandfather in January and the departure of her mother in July, and now the severing was complete between Margo and all the rest of them. Even her daddy, bleeding from his cheek and mouth beside her, telling her to stand up, seemed far away.

In the front seat of the truck, her daddy demanded she tell what had happened, but she said nothing. He drove her to the police station parking lot and begged her to go inside with him. He briefly tried to drag her out of the truck, but she gripped the gearshift knob with her left hand and the armrest with her right and held fast. She had not resisted Cal, but resistance was a lesson she was learning quickly. At home that night, sleepless in her bed, she heard an owl call, Who-who, who cooks for you? She whispered in imitation. She imagined aiming and shooting the bird off its foolish perch in the cedars. From her window, she saw lights still shining at the Murray house across the way and heard music quietly playing.

The next morning, Margo awoke to her daddy moaning through the wall. She forced open his locked door with a butter knife and found him in bed, smelling of blackberry brandy, his face swollen and crusted with blood. He asked her to bring him a beer. Margo took his unopened twelve-pack from beside the refrigerator and kicked it off the porch and end-over-end into the woods outside his window until the cardboard busted open. She cracked one beer and let it foam all over her hand, took a big slug of what remained, and spit it out. She set the can on a stump. She put a second can, unopened, in the crook of a tree and paused to listen to a mourning dove coo from the frosted earth. Using its own sad call, she told the bird to go away. She placed a third can of beer beneath a cluster of barbed raspberry spears. She went on to set up all twelve cans in the woods. In one hand she had her daddy's twenty-gauge shotgun, and in her pocket she had a dozen shells. She stood a few yards away, loaded four shells in the magazine, chambered a round, pulled the trigger, and pulverized the first can. She absorbed the recoil without flinching. She racked the pump, jammed the butt tighter against her shoulder, fired again, and watched the second can explode. Beer foamed eight feet in the air. One by one, in the dim light, she blasted the cans of beer to smithereens, pausing only to reload. She inhaled deeply the sweetness of the gunpowder. Each shot echoed through the woods and across the water.

A light came on in her father's bedroom. She would get him to the hospital. As she waited for him to come outside, she listened to the water flowing beside her in its journey down the Stark, heading toward the dam at Confluence, beyond which lay the Kalamazoo River and, finally, Lake Michigan. Her ears were alive with her blasts. Her shoulder throbbed.

Excerpted from Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Copyright 2011 by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

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