The first time I crossed paths with Bonnie Jo Campbell was when her short story collection American Salvage was published. She emailed me and said she’d be in Chicago for a reading, and perhaps we could add something on in Milwaukee. We emailed each other back and forth but the problem was that we only had a few week’s notice and couldn’t make the short notice work.
And then American Salvage was shortlisted for the National Book Award and W.W. Norton picked up the distribution and the rights to her next novel, Once Upon a River. And that’s when she met a few Boswellians in person. She met Stacie at the AWP conference (that’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and Jason at the bookseller institute. It turned out that Campbell read at Next Chapter for her hardcover, and while we talked about her coming back in conjunction with the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison, her schedule was simply too full.
Instead, we went out for coffee, which was documented previously on this blog.
And the paperback came out, and Campbell, true to her word, worked with her publicist to get her up to Milwaukee, in conjunction with Printer’s Row Lit Fest. So everything was set. We knew we wouldn’t get too much press in the Journal Sentinel, as Campbell had already had a review and not one, but two interviews. And she’s already been on Lake Effect. But we had a bunch of reads.
Except one. I was too afraid to read it. Folks who knew my delicate nature thought it might be too violent for me. So it’s a good thing for me that we have several booksellers who can go to the dark places—Stacie, Shane, Greg, Jason, even Sharon. We have at least two upcoming events coming by master craftsmen who explore such dark places—Patrick Somerville on July 11 and then Donald Ray Pollock on July 17. Now don't forget, we have a large core of customers that see violence as a path to the larger literary truth. I'm not riffing against violence here.
And of course I also let the in-store lit group pick The Sisters Brothers as our July selection. But Shane told me (yes, he’s a fan of this one too) that it’s not as violent as some have said.
But now that we had an event, I had to revisit my Once Upon a River fears. And I have to say, some bad stuff happens, but it’s not particularly graphic, and it’s not violence for violence’s sake. I should have read the Mike Fischer's review in the Journal Sentinel more closely, where he notes that this is like Cooper, Melville, Kerouac, and McCarthy, only with the women that are missing from those books.
Margaret “Margo” Crane is just 14 when the story opens. Her Grandpa Murray runs the local factory. But then Grandpa dies and the factory passes to Uncle Cal. Margo’s mom abandons her dad (they aren’t married) without much contact info. And Cal comes on to Margo at the annual Thanksgiving feast, and that sets in motion a series of events leading to Margo alone on the river.
She’s got some maturing to do but one thing Margo does have is her skills as a sure shot. Her time on the river, through a series of meetings, riffs a bit off of Huckleberry Finn. I’d be more positive about that if I’d read Huckleberry Finn. The hole in my classic literature knowledge seems nebula large sometimes, doesn’t it?
As Margo grows, she learns to take control of her body, learns to trust, but also learns to protect herself. I should note that there is rape in the book, and some killings. But none of the violence is superfluous, and there several books I've actually finished that one be closer to classifying as brutal.
Reading reviews actually helped me put the story in perspective. I learned from Jane Smiley in the New York Times Book Review that Margo is the mother of the heroine of Rachel, the heroine of Q Road, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s first novel. Smiley writes, “It would be too bad if, because of Campbell’s realistic style and ferocious attention to her setting, Once Upon a River were discounted as merely a fine example of American regionalism. It is, rather, an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.”
And Lisa Schwartzbaum in Entertainment Weekly offered extraordinary praise, but got a little caught up in the river angle. At one point, she offers “an assured Campbell narrates in a graceful, gliding, confident voice
that steers the action smoothly from one bend in the plot to the next — a demonstration of outstanding skills on the river of American literature.” And what did I learn from this? Yes, you risk sending your review’s credibility down the drain if you overdo that metaphor thing.
And Alan Cheuse might be one of the biggest fans of all. You know him from NPR but he wrote this print piece for the Chicago Tribune for the hardcover: “Fortunately Bonnie Jo Campbell works all of this material, some lyrical, some naturalistic, and all of it contributing to the creation of a heroine some smart young adolescents may find as attractive as Annie Oakley—or Huck. With an ease and an always convincing prose, this novel is one of the most compelling of the year.”
So now you have the story.
1) Where the heck did I get the idea that I would be too feint-hearted to read this?
2) When you get a ton of press in hardcover, it’s tougher to get attention for the paperback.
3) Campbell is appearing this Friday, June 8, 7 pm, along with Natalie Bakopoulos, author of The Green Shore, which features a teenage girl, Anna, in no less than a struggle against the military takeover of Greece (yes, it takes place in the late 60s, early 70s.)
If you missed it last year, don’t make the same mistake twice.