In a gritty tale reminiscent of WINTER'S BONE, while still remaining wholly unique, teenager Margo Crane sets off up a river in an inherited rowboat to find her mother. Her life begins to unravel when her beloved grandfather dies. Margo's father, Bernard Crane, is Old Man Murray's bastard son, but that hasn't kept her from enjoying her extended Murray family, a large group of aunts, uncles and cousins located along Michigan's Stark River.
"ONCE UPON A RIVER has it all: a strong, strikingly unusual yet absolutely sympathetic hero; an exhilarating plot; and gorgeous descriptions of river and landscape."
The river itself is a source of never-ending delight and comfort to Margo. She and her cousins know the murky water and strong currents. They've played in the water their entire lives, swimming and digging caves and tunnels along the sides. They build rafts, find night crawlers, and fish for bluegills, sunfish and rock bass. Margo uses the rowboat she's inherited from her grandfather, to the chagrin of her cousin Billy.
The entire family is rocked by Grandpa's death. After his passing, Margo's Uncle Cal takes her out to try a little target shooting with his rifle. She misses her first shot, but the next 14 hit the target in a tight group barely off center. Cal is amazed, calling her sharp-shooting ability "unholy." Meanwhile, Margo's mother, Luanne, begins putting on makeup and vanishing all afternoon every day. One afternoon, Margo brings home a huge white puffball mushroom, intending to fry it up for dinner. But when she arrives, she finds a note from Luanne, who has left the family.
At least Margo still has her Uncle Cal, Aunt Joanna, and their rowdy group of sons right across the river to provide a sense of family. But that changes when something unexpected happens at Cal and Joanna's home during a party the day after Thanksgiving, resulting in a terrible rift between Margo and her father and the Cal/Joanna branch of the family. A year later, the division still stands.
Margo takes comfort in her compulsive hunting. She kills three deer in five days, resulting in her father's firm request to stop hunting. She agrees just as she catches sight of an invitation spiked to a tree near their driveway. It reads "Murrays Annual Thanksgiving Weekend Reunion, Friday Nov. 23." The sight of the invitation infuriates her father. Margo believes it was put there to taunt her by her hateful cousin Billy, who seems dedicated to making her life miserable. In spite of what happened a year ago, Margo yearns to be in Joanna's kitchen, helping her make pies for Friday. As she begins to gut her buck, her father slams into his pickup truck, telling Margo he refuses to be insulted this way. Soon Margo hears gunshots coming from Cal and Joanna's home. Terrified, she rows across to the Murray home. She finds that the situation isn't nearly as dire as she'd thought --- until it goes south in the most shocking manner imaginable.
Now, 16-year-old Margo strikes out on her own. She rows upriver on an urgent quest to find her mother. Along the way, she hunts her own food, connects with a variety of people, and discovers both savagery and loveliness.
ONCE UPON A RIVER has it all: a strong, strikingly unusual yet absolutely sympathetic hero; an exhilarating plot; and gorgeous descriptions of river and landscape. This is a coming-of-age tale with a believable and satisfying story arc, filled with fully-realized characters. While reading the book, it's difficult not to believe you are physically along on Margo's amazing adventure.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on July 5, 2011
Once Upon a River