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People On the River Are Happy To Give (You a Really Hard Time)

A review of Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell, a story of a girl with a tumultuous life finds solace in the river.

People On the River Are Happy To Give (You a Really Hard Time)

BOOK REPORT for Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Cover Story: Flaunt It
BFF Charm: Yay
Swoonworthy Scale: 5
Talky Talky: Just Plain Literary
Bonus Factors: River Life, Survival Skills
Relationship Status: Camp Counselor

Cover Story: Flaunt It

When my boyfriend saw me reading this, he was like, "Whoah. That looks... is that... are you reading an ADULT BOOK?" Because this cover means serious business, y'all. There's no emo shizz, no headless girls, no hot pink, nothing but straight up LEGIT IMAGERY. I rarely get the chance to look like a mature adult, so you better believe I flaunted this cover like a new bling ring from Forever 21. (And I wonder why I still get carded.)

The Deal:

It's the late 1970s, and Margo Crane lives a charmed life on Michigan's Stark River. Well, you know, charmed if you like shooting deer and playing with water snakes and don't mind pulling leeches off your body which obviously means not charming for me because GROSS. Margo was practically born on the river, and her life, as well as her soul, is eternally entwined with it. Even when her mom abandons her and her sweet father, Crane; even when her uncle Cal rapes her on Thanksgiving; even when Margo is forced to cut ties with her entire family, she and the river abide in each other. While she's got plenty of badass survival skills, Margo is a stranger to the real world, and as she strikes out on her own, she realizes that the river can only carry her so far before she must carry herself.

BFF Charm: Yay

Margo Crane, you are one tough mothercusser. I'm pretty sure you could out-hunt Katniss, out-shoot Tris and out-spy Kiki Strike. In fact, the only thing you can't seem to do is maintain some self-respect, which drives me crazy cakes, but I also understand. I mean, hello, your mom left you, your dad lives for you, your boy cousins torture you, and every grown man you meet wants to sex you. That's a lot of shizz for a girl to handle. You definitely need a female friend to remind you that you're tough, and you can protect yourself, i.e. girl, PLEASE STOP SLEEPING WITH ALL OF THE OLDER MEN. I think you would have way more fun at my version of a slumber party, and OMG we could have it on your boat and I would be all, "I'M ON A BOAT!" and you'd be confused because obviously you've never heard that song. Seriously, though, I promise I won't make you put on make-up or watch a rom com, but I will get you to open up and realize that you are awesome, and you don't have to be alone. Also, I will teach you the fine art of tubing! P.S. I'm bringing the snacks, ok? No need for you to skin and gut that muskrat, kthx.

Swoonworthy Scale: 5

OH, WHERE TO BEGIN with the sexy times in this book? Maybe I should start with how most of them are extremely inappropriate and definitely illegal? Or maybe I could discuss how disturbing it is to read a scene that manages to make sex between a 17-year-old and a 40-year-old man seem super hot? This book is not a feel-good romance (no kidding), and Margo's survival instinct acts as a big ole dose of steroids for her hormones. Sometimes she has sex out of fear, sometimes out of lust, and rarely out of love, and each time, I vacillated between feeling uncomfortable and wondering why no one appeared to have ever heard of condoms. I mean, I know it's the late 70s but REALLY? Judy Blume would NOT approve. There are definitely some panty-melting moments in this book, thus my score, but most of them aren't the stuff swoon is made of.

Talky Talky: Just Plain Literary

Based on Bonnie Jo Campbell's previous works, I'm pretty sure your local bookstore would not shelve this novel in the YA section. Which is a shame, obviously, because it's a darkly beautiful coming of age story, and this genre needs heavy hitters like Margo amidst the fun romances and thrilling dystopias. Campbell's writing is stunning, and she drifts languidly, luxuriously between descriptions that hum with life and simple, stark bullets of emotion. Margo is slow in her actions and deliberate in her thoughts, and yet the story moves as quickly as the current of the river. This is the kind of writing that seeps into your mind and lingers there, days after you've turned the last page.

Bonus Factor: River Life

In spite of what I said earlier about the leeches (STILL GROSS), Margo's childhood on the river does seem pretty idyllic. She gets to swim every day and pal around with her cousins and learn about the wildlife and plant life and sure, I'd rather pick out my food from a restaurant menu but there's still something to be said for growing up in such pure, unadulterated nature.

Bonus Factor: Survival Skills

As I mentioned above, Margo is like the human equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife. Like, she puts all of the Eagle Scouts I know to SHAME. She hunts, skins, guts and cooks ALL KINDS of animals, shoots rifles with incredible accuracy, forages for edible plants, builds a campfire before you can say, "Smokey" and makes blankets out of rabbit fur. Basically, if a zombie apocalypse happens, you're gonna want to take this book with you.

Casting Call:

Lily Collins as Margo

Even though she's tough, Margo is insanely pretty (thus, all of the men who want to "protect" her), so I decided to go with Lily Collins in the hopes that she can convincingly skin a dead deer.

Relationship Status: Camp Counselor

When I got to camp, I was expecting lots of s'mores, some crafts and a little Kumbaya. You know, the Phyllis Neffler version of roughing it. But then I met this book, and suddenly I was swept away on a thrilling adventure. Sure, there were times when it was pretty tough on me, and we definitely could've used a female empowerment workshop or at least a sex ed talk amidst all of the hunting lessons and fishing classes, but overall, I'm thankful that it gave me a glimpse of what it takes to survive, not only in the wild, but also in the harshness of every day life. I'm definitely going to appreciate indoor plumbing and not having to sleep with pervy old men a lot more now. Thanks, counselor!

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a review copy from W.W. Norton.I received neither money nor cocktails for this review (dammit!). Once Upon a River is available now.

Posh Deluxe's photo About the Author: Sarah lives in Austin, TX, where she programs films at the Alamo Drafthouse. Sarah enjoys fancy cocktails, dance parties and anything that sparkles (except vampires).