Once Upon A River is Campbell's second novel and third book, coming in the wake of her acclaimed story collection American Salvage. It has similarities in setting and style to its predecessors, but is even more emotionally engaging.
Set in the early 1980s – although it could be almost any time in the last 100 years, so out of touch are the people living along this sliver of remote water – the novel is about Margo, a 16-year-old girl living on the banks of the Stark River, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in the remote backwoods of Michigan. Margo is a fantastic creation, a girl with the river in her blood, an uncanny sharpshooting huntswoman who shamelessly and seriously models herself on Annie Oakley.
The story opens with a sexual assault and a botched attempt at revenge, the combination of which propels Margo to take off upriver. Ostensibly she is searching for her mother, who ran off years before, but really Margo is just trying to find a way of growing up safely in a world where the malevolence of men and her own good looks and independent nature make for a volatile combination.
One of the huge strengths of Once Upon A River is its moral ambiguity. The remoteness of the river is a magnet for a certain type of person, someone who wants to drop out of society. Margo encounters a cast of damaged and sometimes broken individuals all struggling in their own ways to get through life as best they can. There is murder, rape, drugs, drink, violence and betrayal in these pages, and Margo's survival is never guaranteed – she has to rely on her wits and skills to stay alive, learning as she goes about the compromises that have to be made in life.
Throughout Once Upon A River, Campbell's prose is sublime. She has unearthed a hard-edged poetry of the land, a perfectly judged lyricism reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy or Daniel Woodrell. Written with consummate craft and imbued with a huge amount of heart, this is powerful, evocative and compelling storytelling at its best.