Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: a review

My copy of Once Upon a River

A couple of weeks ago, I read a book called Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. At first glance, Once Upon a River has an old-fashioned, archaic kind of feel to it. The ‘once upon a…’ title reminds me of legends and fairy tales and the cover picture makes me think of settlers in the old American West: I came to this book expecting a Wild West type of story. When I skimmed the synopsis on Amazon, I thought it was going to be a tale set in the wilderness in the nineteenth century. It was only when I started reading the book itself that I realized it is in fact set in the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, the lifestyle of the teenage protagonist, Margaret Louise Crane, who hunts animals and gathers plant in order to eat, and the settings of rural southern Michigan lend the book a much older feeling.

When Margo’s father is killed, a death “in which she [Margo] is complicit”, she sets off on a journey down the Stark River, a fictional tributary of the Kalamazoo, in an attempt to find the mother who abandoned her. Her journey on the river becomes “one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices” (quotes from the back cover of Once Upon a River).

Part of the blurb on Amazon for the book says it will appeal to fans of The Hunger Games and that caught my attention. But Once Upon a River is not just for Hunger Games fans and Once Upon a River is mostly very different than the tales of Katniss Everdeen. The most obvious difference is the fact that The Hunger Games is a science-fiction story which takes place in a futuristic dystopian North America whereas Once Upon a River is not. However, the key similarity between THG and Once Upon a River, if the two must be compared, is the nature of the principal female character in each book. Katniss and Margaret (aka Margo, as she is called in most of the book) are both strong, independent girls in their mid to late teens. Both of them hunt, fish and gather in order to live and they each have a gutsy, gritty streak in their character that serves to carry them through hard times.

I did not want to reach the end of this book. Although I think Campbell concluded the book in a satisfactory way for the reader, I still wanted the last few chapters to be a bit thicker! I was absolutely gripped and read it cover-to-cover in little more than 24 hours. Campbell’s style is eloquent, especially in terms of the descriptions of her native Michigan, and it is absolutely compelling. Before I read this novel, I had not heard of the author but I will certainly be seeking out more of her work in the near future. A link to her website is below:

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website

The author, Bonnie Jo Campbell — photo © John Campbell

‘Tis the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

There are many poems which capture the atmosphere of this time of year but none better, in my opinion, than Ode to Autumn by John Keats. A lot of the poetry about this season is filled with laments, sadness and descriptions of harsh October winds but Keats’s poem is rich with the comforting imagery of a bountiful autumn, ripening the fruits and filling the air with the lingering fragrance of summer.

Autumn, season of mists…

English Autumn by Jiri Hodan

…and mellow fruitfulness


Public domain image source: Yellow Grain by Petr Kratochvil

ODE TO AUTUMN

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cell.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Fall In Laurel Highlands by Jim Lillicotch