The next, next Great American Novel: Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon A River (Norton)

It's hard to switch gears sometimes.

After spending so many months thinking and talking about a novel that moves you as powerfully as Nina Revoyr's Wingshooters did (just out last month from Akashic/Consortium), working through two seasons to build enthusiasm for a novel like that, one bookseller at a time, that it can be a bit of a shock to realize that it's time to move on to the next novel.

But the wheel of time turns, the publishing cycle spins, and a new season of books is here.

The average bookseller probably runs a practiced eye over the bookshelf full of likely "next books I might fall in love with" a couple of times a day, mentally shuffling the deck, trying to decide where personal tastes, current moods, and the whimsy of fate will intersect.

But eventually you choose a book to try out and see if it's the next one. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes it is. 

And when it is, you put down the novel you've been reading for the past couple of days or weeks in intense sessions of page-turning absorption, finally finished, with a satsified warmth in the bottom of your gut. And you know you have found a book that you can really get behind.


Once Upon a River
by Bonnie Jo Campbell
W. W. Norton & Company | 9780393079890 | $25.95 | July 2011

American Salvage
by Bonnie Jo Campbell
W. W. Norton & Company | 9780393339192 | $13.95 | Dec 2009

Bonnie Jo Campbell's previous book, a collection of stories called American Salvage, was a National Book Award finalist and an NBCC finalist in 2009. Originally published by Wayne State University Press, the reprint rights were scooped up by W.W. Norton shortly thereafter.

Two years down the road, we have this new novel: Once Upon A River, expanded from the story "Family Reunion" in American Salvage.

Set in rural Michigan, Once Upon A River follows the river-borne wanderings of sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, as she navigates a world of her own choosing – one comprised of fishing and trapping and hunting and floating upon the Stark River. In flight from a family tragedy partly of her own making, Margo is on the run. And she has decided to make the most of her sudden, premature independence.

One character in the book describes her as a throwback, and in some ways, Margo is definitely a young woman out of time with the future that is otherwise rushing at the people living in this novel. The other teens in the novel are more interested in watching television and getting drunk or stoned and trying to have sex with each other. Margo fishes and traps and shoots.

Although it's set in the early 1980s, the reader feels the closing in of the natural world, the borders pressing in upon Margo's idyll. Her journey is not a lazily drifting epic on the mighty Mississippi. Her river world is well-defined and a little confining, and frequently polluted by the industries that have spread throughout Michigan. There will be no territory for her to light out for in the end.

And like Huck in that other epic novel of escape and reinvention on the river, Margo faces both the entrapments of society and the savagery of men. A beautiful young woman, despite her frequent long stretches without adequate bathing, she seems to present a target too luscious for men who wish to possess her and have their way with her. Others see her as a wild child who needs to be tamed and civilized.

Like so many great American novels, Margo's story is as much a journey of self-discovery as it is a flight away from those who would try to control her. It's a joy and a thrill to watch Margo come to terms with the world around her and find a way to truly come home.

If you have not read Bonnie Jo Campbell's previous works, seek out American Salvage!  Booksellers should find an advance copy of Once Upon A River – it comes out in early July 2011.


Bonnie Jo Campbell: web siteblog | twitter

W.W. Norton & Co.: web site | tumblr | twitter

Wayne State University Press: web site | facebook


W.W. Norton is one of the publishers I represent. I have a (tiny) financial interest in you falling in love with Bonnie Jo Campbell's books.