Once Upon A River
Sixteen-year-old Margo Crane is a river girl. That would be the Stark and Kalamazoo Rivers in Michigan. The rivers are connected and Margo eventually lives on both. Margo is beautiful. Margo is earthy. She is an expert with weapons and her heroine is Annie Oakley. Interested yet? Bonnie Jo Campbell has created a character I will not soon forget.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially the Depression Era, seem to have spawned characters we have dubbed mountain people, hillbillies, rednecks, river rats, etc. . . And those characters had children that adopted their parents’ dialect and culture. I like the way they (we) talk and their culture fascinates me, especially their music. But I had not heretofore considered Michigan in the seventies a place or time to find these characters.
Campbell proves me wrong. The Cranes and the Murrays carry on a late twentieth century feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys of West Virginia and the back country of Kentucky or the Sutton-Taylor feud of Texas. But this novel is not about the 1970’s feud; it’s about a beautiful teenage girl who seems to be part fish and part wolverine. She belongs to nature, to the river where her father and grandfather taught her how to navigate and how to survive. That teaching becomes essential.
Warning: This book can be raw. There is violence, sexual and otherwise. And you will learn how to skin a muskrat whether you want to or not. Bonnie Jo Campbell makes it all believable. This National Book Award finalist is not exactly an amateur and this is fine work. Once Upon A River
I know, I found the title a little off kilter, too. And the cover is awful. Do you remember the Browns? Not to worry, most people I asked don’t recognize this singing trio, either. But I can almost guarantee you will recognize their songs (“Little Jimmy Brown, The Old Lamplighter, The Three Bells”).
Back in 1959, the brother and two sisters had few peers in the music world. Only Elvis rivaled their international musical success. And get this: Elvis was their close friend. Bonnie was his sweetheart, at least in this novel. If you think that sounds far-fetched, think again.
If you’re not into country or pop music of the late fifties and early sixties, I still think you will find much to like in this book. It is lyrical, yet an easy, compelling read, made better by knowing it is a novel based on real events, real people—famous people.
I have already confessed to my love for country music and country people. But you don’t have to be a fan to love this story. Accomplished, multiple award-winning author Rick Bass weaves facts into his fiction with artful, plaintive grace. A writer who can make you hear the music he describes is well, excellent at what he does. Readers can hear the songs as Bass tells the Browns’ sad story. You will also believe his description of how the Browns achieved perfect pitch by listening to the elusive tone of a well-tempered saw blade at their parents’ Arkansas lumber mill.
And those secret visits Elvis made to the Arkansas hills to visit the Browns, especially Bonnie . . . need I say more? Nashville Chrome.