The River Runs Through It

What’s with you and rivers, TT said. I asked her what she meant and she pointed out the book I was reading, Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell, and the daydream I had told her about, the one I perform when trying to fall asleep. I imagine I’m on a raft like the children in Night of the Hunter, floating slowly down a dark waterway flanked by benign creatures of nature.

Campbell’s book is fairly recent, while Night of the Hunter is an old movie from 1955. In both, children escape violent, predatory men by setting themselves down the river by boat. The movie is most famous for Robert Mitchum’s chilling portrayal of a vile preacher, but it's the image of John and Pearl floating down the river, observed by rabbits and frogs, that has stuck with me. Imaging I am such a child on such a boat soothes me and the imagined pull of the river can sometimes push my mind into unconsciousness.

In Campbell’s fine book, Margo, the child, is a little bit older than John and Pearl, she sets off with a boat and a rifle to escape a home situation in which she is at best unwanted, and at worst in danger of continual violence. She ends up surviving on the river, and the book becomes an old fashioned adventure of self preservation in the wild, hunting, foraging, and fending off the dual threats of loneliness and men who want to turn her into something she’s not (a “nymph”, a “river princess”).

Both book and film show male sexuality as confused and controlling. The preacher woos Willa, John and Pearl’s mother, and then after stoking her romantic interest, he shames her for her desires. This is the same man who hates himself for his own desires, he scowls at the burlesque dancer, his switchblade cutting through his trousers. In Once Upon a River, Margo finds herself taking up with men like ports in a storm, often surprised by the logic of her desires. More often that not, however, as soon as she’s out of the elements, the precariousness of each of these arrangements reveals itself. There’s a reason she always carries a rifle. Margo carries her own gun, but like in the Hunter, it’s an old soul who ultimately provides guidance and physical and emotional shelter.

I’m safe enough if my life that I’m not looking to the river for escape. I’m certainly not resourceful enough to live off of it like Margo does. My vantage point is more passive. The rain is finally letting up in Chicago after a wet and dreary week. I’ll take the hound out for him to do his business, and then we’ll walk the mile to the river, and see what’s floating by.