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Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Wow.  That's all I can say about this powerful, gritty novel. NPR really picked a winner for this one.

Margaret "Margo" Crane is the protagonist of this novel - she lives in rural Michigan in the 1970's. When we first meet Margo, she is 15 but is no way your ordinary 15 year old teenage girl. Margo lives with her father on the river, after her mother abandoned them, and can shoot, skin and hunt like no one else.  In some ways, she's like her idol: Annie Hall in that she is a trailblazer - no other girls in the area are like her. Margo is often in extremely heartbreaking situations. Her uncle rapes her quite early on in the novel and she is such a good shooter that she manages to shoot off the tip of his penis. She also watches her father die in front of her and that is just the beginning of the heartbreak.

This book doesn't have a strict plot per se. It's more about how Margo learns about herself, learns to become self-sufficient and learns to accept herself for who and what she is. I found myself really liking Margo initially and, as I got to know her character during the novel, admiring her spirit, her gutsiness and her unabashed sense of who she was. She was who she was and she wasn't going to change it for anyone - you could take or leave it.  What you saw was what you got.  I loved that.  Campbell managed to write a novel that was raw and sharp in portraying Margo's life - her life isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination and often, I felt like I was reading about the lives of others that I have met during my life.  And yet, Margo doesn't give up. She keeps going and in the end, she perseveres because she has learned to support herself without the assistance of anyone, let alone a man.

Wonderful, powerful, amazing. a must read for this year.

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