ONCE UPON A RIVER, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. W.W. Norton & Co., 348 pp., $25.95
The wonder of "Once Upon a River" is how fresh and weathered it seems at the same time. Ardently turning these pages, I felt as though I'd been waiting for this book and yet somehow already knew it. After her critically acclaimed collection of short stories, "American Salvage," Bonnie Jo Campbell has built her new novel like a modern-day craftsman from the old timbers of our national myths about loners living off the land, rugged tales as perilous as they are alluring. Without sacrificing any of its originality, this story comes bearing the saw marks of classic American literature, the rough-hewn sister of "The Leatherstocking Tales," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Walden."
The scene opens in the early 1980s in a small town that's slowly losing its biggest employer, a metal-fabricating plant yoked to the collapsing Michigan economy. Campbell, who lives near Kalamazoo, has been writing about tough people in rural communities for years. Though most of this novel stays out in the woods, she knows how to suggest the malaise and desperation in town -- the abandoned homes, the minimum-wage jobs, the fertilizer diverted to meth. But the collapse of manufacturing also holds the promise of giving the natural world a reprieve: As the metal plant shuts down, the chemical discharge into the Stark River diminishes, too.
That river is the real home of Campbell's unforgettable heroine, a quiet young woman named Margo Crane. She knows how to handle a boat, and she can skin a deer and cook up the squirrels she shoots with startling accuracy. Entirely uninterested in school or other teens' giddy pursuits, she owns only one book, a biography of Annie Oakley, and her only goal is to live by the water and take care of someone who loves her. But that simple plan is wrecked by her own untouched beauty, which catches the eyes of several malevolent, weak and cowardly men.
In the first chapter, when Margo has just turned 15, her uncle rapes her in a shed and, when caught in the act, claims his pretty niece seduced him. That assault, ignored by her embarrassed family, eventually leads to another violent confrontation that sends Margo up the Stark River on her grandfather's boat. She has vague plans of finding her mother, but mostly she wants to live in peace, eating what she can catch and sleeping where she can, outside the range of the law, school or social workers.
Margo's hushed voice is so pure, her spirit so indomitable, that you'll yearn for her to find the freedom she craves, along with a stretch of clean water. "Once Upon a River" makes you realize with a stab of regret just how cramped and homogeneous our lives and our expectations of others are. I hope Margo's out there somewhere skinning a catfish and cooking it on a hickory stick. It's a hard life, to be sure, but this novel is a celebration of that possibility and its brutal costs.