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September 14, 2011 / schulerbooks

Happy Birthday Bonnie Jo Campbell!

Today is the birthday of National Book Award finalist and all-around-awesome Michigan author Bonnie Jo Campbell! We’re excited to welcome her back to our Lansing store next Thursday, September 22 (7 p.m.) to talk about her latest novel Once Upon a River, which graced a ton of summer reading lists. To learn more, check out this article from the current issue of Revue Mid-Michigan (the first piece I wrote for Revue) and put the event on your calendar! 🙂


Author Bonnie Jo Campbell Lives Up to Hype

Written by Whitney Spotts

While earning critical acclaim and acknowledgment is inherently a goal for most artists, the more highly one’s past work is respected, the higher the bar is set and the more pressure there is to ensure that the next piece lives up to previous standards.

Being named a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her short story collection American Salvage catapulted Michigan author Bonnie Jo Campbell into the literary spotlight in 2009. Happily, Campbell’s newest novel lives up to the hype, earning spots on numerous summer reading lists, including those for Newsweek, NPR and the Daily Beast.

In a phone interview from her home in Kalamazoo, we talked about the inspiration for Once Upon the River, a coming of age novel that is both surprisingly quiet yet unsparingly violent.

The novel is set in the isolated small town of Murrayville (bordering Kalamazoo) around the turn of 1980. While main character Margo technically belongs to the town’s namesake Murray family, her father was a bastard child of the Murray patriarch, eventually acknowledged but always set slightly apart, living across the river from the family homestead in a tiny shack with his daughter. The teenaged Margo has an unearthly beauty that makes her a target, and when a string of events (no plot spoilers here) leaves her father dead, Margo must gather all her strength and leave the only home she’s known in attempt to find her mother, who is rumored to be living in a town upstream.

Margo is an absolutely fascinating character, an almost silent heroine who transmits most of her communication through action. In crafting the character, Campbell was drawn to the idea of how the girl’s beauty would affect her life.

“I’m always interested in how beauty really is as much of a curse as a blessing,” Campbell explained. “For a young woman it’s very much a curse.” In Margo’s case it leaves her oddly isolated. “She works hard in the way farm women used to work hard. She doesn’t really think about her own pleasure, her own advancement or her own self-actualization. I guess it’s that she’s surviving. She’s a survivor, so she doesn’t have the luxury of thriving.”

The struggle for survival is entrenched throughout the tale, giving it a timeless quality: The location could easily read as a tiny country town in the 1970s or a frontier homestead in the 1800s. On her own and trying to figure out where she fits in the world, Margo takes on much of the character of her chosen idol, Annie Oakley.

“I was trying to capture that feeling of [pioneer life],” Campbell explained. “I admire so much books like True Grit – I wanted to have a character who can be tough like that…. I guess it comes back to that feeling of survival. I think it’s a peculiarly American thing that we are aware of survival…. even people who grew up in cities have some awareness of survival or some interest in it – the idea that you could live off the great American land somehow, and that was part of the fun in writing it, trying to figure out how she could live off the land.”

Setting the novel in the time before cell phones, the internet, and even before small towns had access to 911 allows for a sense of Margo being absorbed into her surroundings as another element in the natural environment, in particular, the Michigan milieu. This was important to Campbell.


“For me, I do see that characters rise out of where they are – especially rural characters, I see them rising out of the land. So to some extent I see these as very Michigan characters. However… there’s something magical that happens by trying to express the very unique and specific, you do tap into the universal.”

The skill with which she has tapped into the universal is confirmed by the book’s overwhelmingly positive critical reception. Once Upon a River is a wholly American book, entirely original while combining echoes of our most beloved coming of age tales with classic stories of wilderness survival, worthy of all the summer best-of lists.


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