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Once Upon a River
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
(Originally written for Daniel Casey's Gently Read Literature.)
The more critical examinations of novels I do, the more I'm starting to realize that our enjoyment of them -- and I mean in this case a deep, lasting enjoyment that stays with you even years later -- relies not just on the typical issues of plot, character, style, etc, but also such subtle topics as that author's ability to make that situation come alive in this magical, hard-to-define way, the ability to confound our expectations, the ability to take characters that we may despise at first and literally force us to develop a deep empathy for them, through sheer will and storytelling skills alone. Because when you really think about it, it's not the projects that exactly meet our expectations that ever stay with us for long -- that's merely entertainment, a way for us to pleasantly wile away the time when we're bored -- but instead the ones that surprise us, that maybe even anger us at first, the ones that force us to look at a situation in a new light whether we want to or not. And when these projects are at their best, they have the ability to literally transform us, to make us understand the world in a better, more complex way than we did before; and this is really the goal of the arts when all is said and done, not just to entertain but to explain the world to us, to examine difficult situations in intelligent ways so that we might become slightly better human beings by the end of it all.
That's certainly the case, for example, with Bonnie Jo Campbell's phenomenal new novel Once Upon a River, which almost since the first day of its existence has been touted as the frontrunner for the 2012 Pulitzer, a prediction looking more prophetic with each passing month; because not only is it exquisite in all its technical details, almost a given when you consider Campbell's past (she's a well-loved Michigan-based professor who has already either won or been nominated in the past for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Eudora Welty Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship), but it also possesses in spades this exact elusive quality I was talking about before, all the more astonishing for being set among uneducated hillbilly trash in the rural outskirts of Kalamazoo in the 1970s. Because let me make my biases clear right away -- I actually grew up in such an environment myself, only in Missouri instead of Michigan, maybe not so blatantly white-trash in my case but certainly surrounded by white trash at all times, and in many ways my move to Chicago in the '90s was in an attempt to get as far away from those kinds of people as possible without actually leaving the country; and so when I first picked this up and it looked like it was going to be yet another misguided academic ode to the "savage nobility" of racist, ignorant, backwoods monsters, needless to say that I was disappointed, given how much fawning praise it's already received in just the few months it's now been out. And indeed, if I hadn't been reading this on specific assignment for another literary journal besides my own, the chances are likely that I would've never made it past the excruciating first fifty pages, in which we watch our beautiful yet semi-feral sixteen-year-old sharpshooting heroine Margo Crane first get raped by her leering, drunken uncle, then get blamed for it by the rest of her family, then witnesses her dad get murdered from a shotgun blast right in front of her, and then takes off in a rowboat up the Kalamazoo River in search of her slutty, borderline-retarded mother, who immediately abandoned Margo at the exact moment she stopped growing taller at fourteen, under the justification that she "was a woman now" and no longer needed parental guidance. No matter what your opinion on the subject, all will agree that that's a lot of hillbilly trash to deal with in the first fifty pages of a novel, and those with even the slightest negative opinions of hillbilly trash can't really be blamed for giving up on this book in angry disgust before even reaching chapter five.
But then a remarkable thing happened, which is that Campbell started pulling me into the story more and more, not so much expanding the plot itself but rather its underlying message and even general milieu. And indeed, I take it as a lucky coincidence that I just happen to be reading George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels right now as well, because both projects surprisingly deal with the same topic at their deepest, most bottom levels -- namely that, far from the chaotic, dark, backwards, black-and-white world that Enlightenment scholars painted the Medieval Period of Western civilization (i.e. 500 to 1400 AD), an attitude that historians in the 1700s almost had to adopt for political purposes, life under a form of violent quasi-anarchy is actually a lot more complex and sophisticated than many give it credit for, with an ever-shifting series of rules and alliances among all the people in that community, a realpolitik give-and-take that can many times produce its own strange form of peace and stability, apart from the usual structure of government, judges and police that we in the West now take so much for granted, precisely because of these old Enlightenment scholars painting such a doomsday picture of what the alternative is.
Because the more you read of Once Upon a River (set almost entirely within nearly lawless rural locations, I should make clear), the more you realize that Campbell means for this hillbilly trash and their "shotgun justice" to be a grand metaphor instead of a literal portrait, a stand-in for any number of situations from real life where the concept of "law and order" is shaky at best, from Medieval Europe to modern Middle East failed states to even post-apocalyptic science-fiction (ask me how much this book reminded me at times of Cormac McCarthy's The Road); and that what Campbell is mostly interested in exploring are the complicated and highly politicized ways that the people in such an environment create a form of law and order for themselves anyway, the exact organic process that brought us our modern governments and judges and police in the first place, instead of these institutions springing forth from the ground fully formed in the 1700s like Enlightenment historians would have us believe. And that's a much more interesting thing than listening to some Starbucks-sipping professor drone on about the "savage nobility" of Jerry Springer guests, and especially with Campbell examining it within such a unique and unexpected setting; and in fact that's the main reason to even read this book, is to watch our street-smart (river-smart?) protagonist negotiate these choppy political waters for herself, learning step by step and with plenty of mistakes how to survive and even thrive within this dangerous lawless world of constant sexual and physical assault, or at least with the threat of random assault hanging over everything like a giant dark cloud.
Of course, this being a smart academic novel, Once Upon a River abounds with literary allusions as well, and in fact I suspect that Campbell meant for this to be at least partly an homage to the various classics of rural-US literature that I assume informed her in her own youth; for example, both Annie Oakley's biography and the Foxfire books come immediately to mind, mostly because of Campbell specifically referencing them by name several times, and it's easy to detect strains of both Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau in there as well. (And this is to say nothing of the recent Hollywood hits True Grit and Winter's Bone, which also feature tough, close-lipped teenage girls as their main heroines, negotiating dangerous and lawless rural environments on their own.) But perhaps the most direct nod to another literary work here is one that Campbell never explicitly mentions, but that hugely informs this manuscript if you're familiar with it already, which is William Least Heat-Moon's criminally underrated Blue Highways; a Native American who had lost touch with his ancestral roots, Moon set out in the '70s on a real-life cross-country trip, driving only on forgotten back lanes (the literal "blue highways" on an old 1930s map of the US he used to navigate his trip), with the resulting nonfiction book partly a loving ode to American regionalist authenticity and partly a sad elegy to its rapid disappearance, being choked to death in those years by the first big migration of malls and fast-food chains to the rural countryside. And indeed, I think it no coincidence at all that one of the most important side characters in Campbell's book almost exactly matches the description of the real Moon when he was actually making his trip back in the '70s, and I give a lot of kudos to her for creating such a sly ode without ever coming out and just saying, "And did I mention that I adore Blue Highways?"
Ultimately it's hard to imagine how this novel could be any better than it currently is; it's as thrilling and bloody as a beach read, as astute and beautifully written as you would expect from someone with Campbell's credentials, chock-full of horrible men and subtle references to feminist theory but without letting any of the equally horrible women off the hook either, the entire plot propelled by one of the most fascinating literary characters I've come across in a long time. And like I said, more important than any of this, Campbell achieved the truly remarkable feat of changing my mind while I was reading it, making me understand both my own rural background and my various ex-girlfriends in a profound new way, a way that lets me come to more of a resolution about both subjects than I had possessed before picking up this book. And that's why I'm happy to announce that today Once Upon a River becomes the third book of 2011 to receive a perfect score at CCLaP (after Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Jonathan Evison's West of Here), a truly unforgettable experience that deserves every accolade it's received. I urge all lovers of great literature to pick up a copy as soon as possible, and I eagerly look forward to seeing how it will fare come next year's awards season.
Out of 10: 10