Book by BONNIE JO CAMPBELL
If the Mississippi River belongs irrevocably to Mark Twain, then it’s safe to say Bonnie Jo Campbell has staked her claim in the waters of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Campbell’s new novel, Once Upon A River, takes place on an imaginary tributary that flows into the Kalamazoo, the swift, treacherous Stark River. Out of curiosity, I spent some time looking at maps of the Kalamazoo River watershed, comparing them to the map of the Stark River that accompanies the book, illustrated in careful, calligraphic strokes by Adrian Kitzinger. While there’s no clear analog for the Stark in real life, one upward slash of blue caught my eye: Battle Creek. As much setting as character, the Stark is also a refuge and a hazard for abandoned teenager Margo Crane, who takes to its waters to escape the reach of her extended family and the looming threat of Social Services. Margo’s battles are both internal and terrifyingly tangible: after her father’s murder, she struggles to live without him, taking lovers out of an intriguing mixture of sexual curiosity, longing, and an instinctual knack for casting the best odds for her own survival. Part foundling, part Annie Oakley, and part proto-feminist, all Margo wants to do is escape the violent consequences of being on her own long enough to learn how to live.