July 27 2011 12:00 AM

Bonnie Jo Campbell makes a major splash


It’s easier to name a major author Bonnie
Jo Campbell hasn’t been compared with (Edith Wharton comes to mind)
than it is to tick off the long list of writers to whom she’s being
compared: Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, Raymond Carver, Daniel Woodrell,
Barbara Kingsolver and the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, who might
be Campbell’s first choice for comparison.

Not only does Campbell share O’Connor’s
penchant for farm animals (Campbell has two pet donkeys, Jack and Don
Quixote; O’Connor became famous at 6 years old  in
a newsreel shown in movie houses around the world for training a
chicken to walk backwards), they also share the love of writing about
outsiders; Campbell often refers to them in her conversations as
“troubled people.”

At a recent book signing and reading in
Ann Arbor, Campbell made a point to say she has a “kinship with Southern
grotesque writers,” and she isn’t the least bit annoyed by those who
would compare her work to that of other authors. She says that’s how
everyone organizes his or her brain.

“It’s how we orient ourselves,” she says. “It’s who we like to think we like to like.”

The Twain comparison seems particularly
applicable, given that Campbell has written a book about a journey on a
river, switching out Huck Finn for 16-year-old Margo Crane, a
sharpshooting Lolita who goes in search of her lost mother.

Margo, like Huck, is destined to become
one of those defining characters of literature, a self-assured, tough
survivor of everything the river and its “outsider” inhabitants can
throw at her.

Campbell said she reread “The Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn” several times during her own literary journey, but
she noticed it came up short for her in one area.

“More river — it needed more river,” she said. 

Campbell delivers on that statement,
writing richly textured descriptions of a Michigan river similar to the
writing of naturalist and Southerner Wendell Berry or Michigan’s own Jim

“I was nervous about the beginning of the
book (in which she writes lavishly about the river),” Campbell says. “I
was indulgent about nature.”

The first sentence in the book sets the
tone, as she describes the river that will become central to the plot:
“The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood
flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.”

She said she finds rivers so much more
alive than oceans. “Oceans are so big, but a river, you can get right up
on it. It is full of life. Something is always crawling in or out of

Campbell grew up on a creek, and also
spent time at her grandparents’ cottage on the St. Joseph River,
gathering not just mollusks but memories that she would later use in her

She said she decided to write “Once Upon a
River” after readers of “Q Road” wanted to know more about the past of
Margo, the major character. Although written in 2002, “Q Road” is
somewhat of a sequel to “Once Upon a River” and begins with a grown-up
Margo and a 15-year-old daughter.

“I thought maybe there’s more to say
about Margo, a middle-aged woman living on a houseboat. How would such a
beautiful woman end up living on a houseboat?”

“Once Upon a River” eloquently provides that answer.

As in her books “Q-Road” and “American
Salvage,” Campbell is especially proficient writing about those at the
fringes of life, much like Woodrell did in “Winter’s Bone,” which
features another teen in search of a lost parent.

In “Once Upon a River,” Campbell’s
resourceful protagonist has the skills of a frontiersman: Hunting,
fishing and trapping have become second nature to her. She can read the
river and the forest and their inhabitants — some furry, some slithering
— like a map. It takes her awhile to be able to do the same with
people, especially men.

Margo takes up shooting for solace and as
a way of centering herself after her beloved grandfather dies. Enamored
by Annie Oakley (Campbell’s hero) and equipped with a Marlin Rimfire
.22 rifle, just like Annie’s, Margo learns to shoot through endless
practice and an uncanny natural ability.

Campbell writes of the experience: “Uncle
Cal claimed credit for teaching her to shoot, but while Margo had felt
his guidance, she had felt just as strongly the guidance of the gun
itself. It held her steady, and then sadness perfected her aim.”

Campbell, a meticulous researcher, didn’t take writing about shooting to chance.

“I knew I would look dumb if I didn’t get
it right,” she says. She consulted a friend who was a master target
shooter and practiced with the same rifle she describes in the book
until, as she says, “I got pretty good.” 

She even put the rifle on her shoulder and walked through her neighborhood to gauge response.

“None,” she said. “I’m like a method actor. I’m a method writer.”

In a similar way, she made sure she got
one of the boats that Margo uses in the book just right. An advance
reading copy of “Once Upon a River” had Margo in a powerboat — until a
relative of Campbell’s pointed out the type of river she describes calls
for a pontoon. Campbell went out and found one made in Michigan — a
Playbuoy — which she then carefully wove into the book.

The meticulous research does not distract
from her beautiful prose, which, like the river she writes about, can
hold danger around every bend.

The book has come under so much scrutiny
from reviewers that Campbell says she a little embarrassed by all the
attention. “Writing is such a private thing, and I’m out in the world

Her privacy really ended two years ago
when “American Salvage” was named a finalist for the National Book
Award. It was then she stepped onto the fast track.

Before the publication of “Salvage,” she was at a low ebb, having lost her agent. “She dumped me,” Campbell says.

As a backstop, “American Salvage” was
published by Wayne State University Press, and Campbell was agent-less
until the National Book Award finalists were announced: “And the next
day I had 50 e-mails from — guess who? — agents.”

As to being compared to “Huckleberry
Finn,” Campbell said, “I can’t begin to compare myself to Twain. ‘Huck
Finn’ was a touchstone for me writing the book, but Margo and Finn are
vastly different. Huck is a huckster and clever. He toys with people,
while Margo is much more straightforward. She’s a survivor, and the need
for survival is a different story, especially among gals. I’m just
writing stories about troubled people struggling to survive.”