Crow Lake

Reviewed: November 29, 2006
By: Mary Lawson
Publisher: Seal Books
322 pages, $10.99

Mary Lawson came to my attention on Sounds Like Canada one morning, when the conversation was actually about her second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge. Crow Lake was mentioned, however, and when I wandered into my local bookstore a few days later, there it was in an easily affordable paperback edition.

This is the story of Kate Morrison, and of her relationship with her brother, Matt. Matt was the hero of her youth, the person who inspired her to pursue her education, get her degree in Biology and teach at a university. Matt was, in her eyes, brilliant, and the life she was living was the one she had imagined he would have.

Instead, Matt runs a farm in Crow Lake, in northern Ontario, shackled to the land by his work and by his family, the one he started by accident when he was way too young to have been making a choice like that. For Kate, the whole situation is a betrayal, and what’s worse is that Matt seems to be perfectly content with his life.

Lawson takes us through that life, as seen through Kate’s eyes, as framed by the invitation to come home for her nephew Simon’s graduation. “Bring someone if you want to,” Matt had written.

Did she want to? What was the state of her relationship with Daniel, a thing which was at that delicate stage between setting like concrete and dispersing like dust in the wind? Did she really want to take her boyfriend and lover home, show him where she had actually come from, have him meet the family she was so ambivalent about, and see if he could fit into all of that?

Wouldn’t it mean that she would have to talk about her past in order to prepare him for what he might meet, and that she’d have to face it herself in order to talk about it?

Not that her past was so awful. It was the past of a young woman who had lost her parents too early, whose extended family was too poor to take on all four of the kids, and whose two older brothers tried very hard to shoulder a burden that really was too much for them.

Both brothers had academic potential. Luke, the eldest, gave up his chances so that younger brother Matt could go on. In Kate’s eyes, Matt threw all that away for Marie, his wife. She has never forgiven him.

We learn all of this in bits and pieces, framed by Kate’s current life and her agonizing over what to do with Daniel, and then by memories triggered along the road as the two of them make the long trip to the north farming country and the small town she had worked so hard to escape and put behind her.

Now, if this all sounds a bit like a romance novel in my description, that’s just a sign of my inadequacy as a reviewer. What we really have here is a book that does for hardscrabble north Ontario farm country what W.O. Mitchell did for small town Saskatchewan when he wrote Who Has Seen the Wind.

Crow Lake gives us a portrait of a small community, complete with its horrors (the Pye family); its eccentrics, like the marvelous Mrs. Stanovich; its dedicated professionals, like Dr. Christopherson and the school teacher, Miss Carrington (a Dickensian choice of name if ever I read one); and its own special sense of place.

With Mitchell it was the prairie and the wind; with Lawson it’s the farm and the pond where Kate first becomes fascinated with life. The setting has a tactile reality that grounds it and makes it certain that Kate will have to come to terms with her inner demons.

Much of the childhood story is over by the time she’s eight years old, but that takes a great deal of the book in the telling.

The heavily emotional, often tumultuous, years when her brothers were trying to be both breadwinners and parents for their two sisters and each other stand in sharp contrast to the cut and thrust of Daniel’s home. Both of his parents are professors, and seem to have built their relationship on a friendly, but intensely intellectual rivalry.

Crow Lake is an intense novel which occupied my attention just about completely during a cross country trip to a family event of my own early in the fall. I’m definitely looking forward to Lawson’s next book.