Book review: Striking story in 'Once Upon a River'

By Shelby Scoffield

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, June 16 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

"ONCE UPON A RIVER," by Bonnie Jo Campbell, W.W. Norton & Company, $15.99, 348 pages (f)

“Once Upon a River” by Bonnie Jo Campbell is a sobering piece of American fiction. Though the novel, which has recently been released in paperback, is sexually explicit, the story line is brutally honest and intense. It is a book for mature audiences who are capable of seeing the book's larger picture.

Sixteen-year-old Margo Crane has grown up in rural Michigan. Shortly after her grandfather passed away, Margo’s mother determined she had enough of the wilderness life and disappeared without a trace. Margo is now left alone with her father.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Margo’s uncle rapes her. Margo’s father eventually finds out about the rape and takes matters into his own hands, But then Margo’s father is violently killed.

Margo decides to leave her home to try and find her mother. She travels by canoe on the Stark River with her rifle and her copy of Annie Oakley’s biography.

While traveling, Margo meets a man named Brian Ledoux who promises to take care of Margo and keep her safe. Eventually, Brian is thrown into jail and Margo finds protection with another man across the river. During this time Margo’s naivety is taken advantage of and she becomes sexually involved with these men.

Margo continues her journey down the river and meets many more people. She learns how to trust and what it means to really love a person.

As mentioned, readers should be advised of the mature themes presented in the book. In a noble attempt to capture Margo’s reality, Campbell has included sexually explicit scenes and they distract the reader from appreciating the larger message of the book.

“Once Upon a River” seems like a modern-day “Huckleberry Finn.” It takes the journey motif and makes it applicable to the present day.

Overall, “Once Upon a River” is a striking coming-of-age story.

If you go ...

What: Bonnie Jo Campbell book signing

When: Thursday, June 28, 7 p.m.

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com

Shelby Scoffield is a graduate of Brigham Young University and a graduate student at California State University, Stanislaus.

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