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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Once Upon a River

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new coming-of-age novel follows her short story collection, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press, 2009), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award two years ago. Set in 1970s rural Michigan, Once Upon a River is about a crucial period in the life of teenager Margo Crane.

First, I wanted to share just how much I was affected by this book, which frankly makes writing about it a challenge. I can only hope that I am able to communicate its beauty. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and I expect it will find a place among my favorite books of all time. There is something about Margo’s struggle to find a place in the world that touched me very deeply.

That being said, and more to the point, let’s examine its teen appeal. Margo is a true original. Most teens I know will read her story and be amazed by just how different her life is from theirs. Margo drops out of school without a thought. She never felt at home there, or able to process quickly enough to feel a part of things. It is impossible to imagine her watching television, going to a mall, or attending a high school football game. Her priorities fall along the lines of sharpshooting and swimming in the river.

Margo makes some bad choices even though she tries very hard to make the right ones. It all comes down to trying to figure out how to live. And isn’t that what all teenagers are doing, consciously or not? Margo does it without role models to guide her. She has lost everyone she cares about. As a literary character, she has the wonderful quality of being complicated, yet accessible. Her motives, her choices, her priorities are debatable, sometimes puzzling, but at heart she is just a kid trying to find her way. So, no matter how different her life is, I expect most teens will root for her.

Margo’s story is an intense odyssey of survival and discovery. I can imagine an English teacher recommending it as supplementary reading for older students studying Huck Finn. It is a perfect choice for AP English students looking for a book that might be applicable to the essay question. It makes a fascinating companion to Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, another (completely different) odyssey novel, involving another teen who has lost her parents, forced to go it on her own.

Then there is the natural setting. Margo is a sharpshooter, a hunter who skins and cooks her kill. In fact, there is a period during which her skill saves her from starvation. Teens will be fascinated by her close connection to the natural world. She may inspire them to think about their own lives in a new light. Not that she will inspire them to do as she does, rather to see daily life from new angles. She will challenge their assumptions, broaden their horizons.

Every review source I’ve read, from Booklist to Entertainment Weekly, has given this book a rave. I do have two caveats. It is not for readers sensitive to hunting scenes. And the content makes it most appropriate for older teens. (In my school I will recommend it to 11th & 12th graders.)

This is a book that begs to be discussed. I dare you to read it and NOT need to talk about Margo. If you want to do that here, I would be thrilled to share the conversation.

CAMPBELL, Bonnie Jo. Once Upon a River. 320p. Norton. 2011. Tr $25.95. ISBN 978-0-393-07989-0. LC number unavailable.  Once Upon a River

Adult/High School–In 16-year-old Margo, Campbell has created a unique literary character, one sure to provoke discussion. Growing up along Michigan’s Stark River, Margo spent every possible moment near the water, swimming and fishing with her cousins. Now, abandoned by her mother, raped by her uncle, and inadvertently the cause of her father’s death, Margo takes off alone, rowing up the river in the precious teak boat that had been her grandfather’s, The River Rose. She takes only what she needs to survive, along with her mother’s last known address and Little Sure Shot, a biography of Annie Oakley that she uses as a guide to life. She encounters a series of characters, mostly men, loners with whom she lives for short periods, grateful for the shelter they provide while she tracks down her mother. Margo studies them and their lives for clues on how to live her own. In turn, they are intrigued by her strange beauty, near silence, and skill with a gun. Margo works methodically toward figuring out a life that does not compromise her independence and satisfies her need to live along the river. She often misjudges the consequences of her choices, endangering herself again and again, and lacks a clear sense of right and wrong. Teens will marvel at her resolve and unique set of priorities. Campbell has created a mesmerizing world, where nature and self-preservation are primary. While Margo herself is emotionally detached, readers will be anything but in response to her journey.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.


  1. Jane Ritter says:

    This book had a big impact on me as well. At first I was troubled and put off by all the violence and Margo’s questionable choices. However, as Margo struggles to find her way, she transforms into a character that feels remorse and compassion. Her early emotional detachment and palpable need for revenge give way to an understanding that she needs to be connected to others, but on her terms and in her way. This book is filled with many, many unlikable characters which only makes those we come to like all the more memorable. As Angela says, this is a beautiful book that will not soon be forgotten.

  2. John Sexton says:

    Margo just might be one of the best teen protaganist ever in a book for adults. She’s not gotten many breaks in life and makes matters worse by making choices that will have you squirming in your seat. She heads into the world seemingly without a moral compass (but what good is a compass on a meandering river anyway?). Yet she perseveres, like the river, until she finally finds adults who are caring and protective and accepting. In so doing, finds herself. It is the scenes and encounters along the way that are heartbreaking and touching to a degree that I have seldom encountered in a novel. I didn’t much like Margo until I fell in love with her.

    More Deliverance than Huckleberry Finn, its a great book.

    It will be fun to watch this one be talked about for a long time.

  3. Without question, one of the best books I’ve read in 2011. Margo is a heartbreaking, beautiful, and complex protagonist. I’m not sold on teen appeal, however.