Skip to Main Content

Islington Branch Book Club - Past Titles: "Once upon a River" by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Take a look through previous titles we've discussed at our Islington Branch Book Club

"Once upon a River" by Bonnie Jo Campbell

  1. Character Analysis:

    • Discuss the protagonist, Margo Crane. What motivates her actions throughout the novel? How does she navigate the challenges she faces, and how does her character evolve over the course of the story?
    • Explore the other significant characters in the novel, such as Margo's family members, friends, and romantic interests. How do they contribute to Margo's journey, and what do their interactions reveal about them?
  2. Themes of Survival and Resilience:

    • "Once Upon a River" is a story of survival in the face of adversity. How does Margo demonstrate resilience throughout the novel? What challenges does she encounter, and how does she overcome them?
  3. Exploration of Gender Roles:

    • How does the novel depict traditional gender roles, particularly in the rural American setting? Discuss Margo's experiences as a young woman navigating a predominantly male-dominated world. How do gender dynamics influence her interactions with others?
  4. Nature as a Character:

    • The natural world plays a significant role in the novel, serving almost as a character itself. Explore the symbolism of the river and the wilderness surrounding it. How does Margo's connection to nature shape her identity and her journey?
  5. Family and Relationships:

    • Family relationships are complex in "Once Upon a River." Analyze Margo's relationships with her family members, including her mother, father, and uncle. How do these relationships impact Margo's sense of self and her decisions?
    • Discuss Margo's romantic relationships throughout the novel. What do these relationships reveal about her desires, vulnerabilities, and growth?
  6. Quest for Identity:

    • Margo embarks on a journey of self-discovery throughout the novel. How does she grapple with questions of identity, belonging, and purpose? What factors shape her sense of self?
  7. Social Commentary:

    • "Once Upon a River" offers a glimpse into rural America and the challenges faced by its inhabitants. Discuss the novel's social commentary on issues such as poverty, substance abuse, and the divide between urban and rural communities.
  8. Writing Style and Narrative Structure:

    • Bonnie Jo Campbell employs a unique narrative style in the novel, blending realism with elements of folklore and myth. How does this narrative style contribute to the overall tone and themes of the story?
  9. Ethical Dilemmas:

    • Throughout the novel, Margo is faced with ethical dilemmas and difficult choices. Reflect on some of these moments and discuss the moral implications of Margo's decisions.
  10. Symbolism and Imagery:

    • Explore the symbolism and imagery used throughout the novel, such as the river, the wilderness, and the various animals encountered by Margo. What do these symbols represent, and how do they deepen the thematic exploration of the story?
  11. Coming-of-Age Themes:

    • "Once Upon a River" can be seen as a coming-of-age story for Margo. How does she navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood? What lessons does she learn along the way?
  12. Impact of Trauma:

    • Margo experiences various forms of trauma throughout the novel, including loss, violence, and betrayal. How does she cope with these traumatic experiences, and what impact do they have on her psyche and her relationships?

Bonnie Jo Campbell is an American author known for her gritty and poignant literary works that often explore themes of survival, rural life, and the complexities of human relationships. She was born on July 18, 1962, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Campbell grew up on a farm in rural Michigan, an experience that deeply influenced her writing and provided inspiration for her stories. She attended the University of Chicago, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy. Later, she pursued a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University.

Campbell's writing career began with the publication of her short story collection, "Women & Other Animals," in 1999. The collection received critical acclaim and won the AWP Award for Short Fiction.

In 2002, Campbell published her debut novel, "Q Road," which follows the lives of residents in a rural Michigan community struggling with poverty and addiction. The novel received positive reviews for its raw portrayal of rural life and its memorable characters.

Campbell gained widespread recognition with her novel "Once Upon a River," published in 2011. The novel tells the story of Margo Crane, a young girl growing up along the Stark River in rural Michigan, and her journey of survival and self-discovery. "Once Upon a River" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Michigan Notable Book Award.

In addition to her novels and short story collections, Campbell has also published essays and articles in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her writing often explores themes of gender, class, and the human connection to nature.

Campbell's literary achievements have been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. She is also a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and the Eudora Welty Prize for Fiction.

In addition to her writing, Campbell has taught creative writing at various universities and institutions, including Pacific University's Low-Residency MFA Program and the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA Program.

Bonnie Jo Campbell continues to write and is regarded as one of America's leading contemporary authors, celebrated for her authentic voice, vivid storytelling, and deep exploration of the human experience, particularly in rural America.


Westwood Public Library

Main Library

660 High Street
Westwood, MA 02090
Email Main Library

Islington Branch

273 Washington Street
Westwood, MA 02090
Email Branch Library