Fifteen year old Margo Crane has grown up on the Stark River in Michigan. Her world revolves around her family's life on the river. Although the men go into town to work for the family's metalworking company, their homes are on the banks of the river, just a short boat ride to each other's houses.
Her unhappy Mother abandons her and her Father to find a new life. This is the start of a very difficult life for Margo. Margo's Father, understanding the rough life on the river, has told Margo to avoid all drunken men including her own family members. When her drunk Uncle takes advantage of her, her father tries to help and is killed by Margo's cousin. If anything happened to her Father, Margo was supposed to live with the family of this Uncle. Now she feels she has no one and takes her boat and drifts down the river to escape and try and find her Mother.
Once Upon a River is Margo's story of survival. She knows how to hunt and fish and build fires, but she is very naive and young when it comes to interacting with people, especially men. She meets some good men on the river, but most treat her poorly, until she finally meets a man who has more to lose than she does.
This is a dark, but beautifully written story of a young girl growing in to womanhood and learning the ways of her environment. She meets many people on the margins of society where she, too, is living. But Margo has an indomitable spirit and the gift of survival. You can only cheer for her, knowing that she, like her great idol, Annie Oakley, will be one of the survivors.