Rivers fascinate writers. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A River Runs Through It, the novels of Wendell Berry. Casting a wider net, The African Queen, Heart of Darkness, and any book about Lewis & Clark.
Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s second novel, tells the story of 15-year-old, stunningly beautiful (even when dirt-encrusted) sharpshooter Margo Crane; raped, orphaned and raped again. Margo wants to be Annie Oakley. She fishes, hunts and then in graphic detail, kills and skins her prey. She occasionally steals vegetables too. She kills deer out-of-season because she has no way other than pulling a trigger to let her emotions escape. She rarely speaks; but like Helen of Troy, men are inevitably drawn to her (generally gritty) extraordinary beauty. All I know is she has green eyes.
Ms. Campbell’s writing eloquently conveys the natural world of Northern Michigan through the changing seasons and Margo’s symbiotic relationship to it. But the relationships between Margo and the men of the book left me at best skeptical and at worst hostile. Margo is seduced by an older male relative in an “I’d sort of rather not do this but it’s not all that bad” kind of way. She adores the man and wants to please him. Margo chooses an older lover or two who will provide her with the necessities of food and shelter and she revels in these adventures. I’ve seen reviews praising the book for the unabashed sensuality of the female heroine. I just don’t think that’s necessarily a glorious role model. Whether forced to have sexual intercourse physically or by physical necessity, force is involved.
All in all, I’ve gotta say I identified much more with the deer than with the girl.
Should you choose the book for your book club, I suggest the following menu based on the book:
Welsh Rarebit: When I was growing up we always thought this had rabbit in it. It doesn’t but you can fool a couple people. And it’s good! (Mark Bittman’s recipe below)
Homemade cinnamon bread
A big salad of whatever you can steal. Or a salad of mixed baby greens, chopped apples and diced avocado tossed with a simple olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette. You don’t need much oil, the avocado spreads into the salad to create the perfect complement to the lemon juice and tangy apples.
Venison stew. I’ve never fixed it so I can’t recommend any particular recipe. Or you could buy ground venison and make chili.
For dessert, pie. Whatever your favorite is.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 cup dark beer
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 pound Cheddar cheese, grated
4-8 pieces of lightly toasted bread
Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat, adding flour as it melts. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and very fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Stir in the mustard and cayenne, then whisk in the beer and Worcestershire.
When mixture is uniform, turn to low and stir in cheese, stirring until smooth.
Spread mixture on toast, place under broiler until bubbly and the edges of the bread are crispy. Serve immediately.
Although Once Upon a River takes place in Michigan, this is not the book for a Motown soundtrack. I’m thinking Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson and Tobey Keith. Anything at all about sitting around shooting things and drinking beer. And specifically this:
Redneck Woman, Gretchen Wilson
Bitch, Meredith Wilson
She’s Country, Jason Aldean
Man I Feel Like A Woman, Shania Twain
The soundtrack to The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Now, where did I put my copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn …