Crow Lake Re-visited
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson was published in 2002 and became an instant success, a first novel from a Canadian born writer who lives in England. That year and every year since readers have asked each other “have you read Crow Lake?” If they have, the answer is “yes” – followed by “I loved it”. If the answer is “no” they are advised to read it, “you’ll love it”.
Crow Lake, along with books such as Fall on Your Knees, Three Day Road, Under This Unbroken Sky, Galore, February and many other great Canadian contemporary novels, are destined to become our modern classics.
When I read Mary Lawson’s new novel Road Ends this winter I realized I could remember almost nothing about Crow Lake – except that I’d loved reading it. So, it seemed a good time to re-read both Crow Lake and it’s sequel The Other Side of the Bridge.
Crow Lake is a small farming community in Northern Ontario – in the New Liskeard region. The story is told by Kate Morrison, now 27 years old, a professor at a University in Toronto. She tells us the story of her family, and her own childhood. We meet the Morrison family. Dad works in a bank in Straun, the closest big town, Mom is at home with the kids, Luke just finishing High School, Matt a year behind his brother, Kate is 7 years old, and the baby, Bo. Very early in the story the parents are killed in a car accident. Luke and Matt together make a decision to stay at home and raise their young sisters.
Kate appears to be the child most vulnerable at the time of her parents deaths, and she carries the fear and anxiety of loss with her into her adult life. It is the occasion of a family celebration twenty years later that forces Kate to examine and re-assess her long held version of the sacrifice made by her brothers. Kate knows that the opportunity for education was denied to her brothers because of their decision to stay in Crow Lake. Her own education is both a gift and a burden.
Mary Lawson writes with such clarity – you can imagine her sitting and thinking and examining each situation from every angle before committing herself to words. I also thought, as I read, that it seems to be a particularly Canadian thing – this clarity of prose. Which is not to say it is a simple novel – the relationships are certainly complicated and are not made clear to us until the end of the story.
I found myself with less sympathy for Kate and her young adult angst than I remember from reading this novel the first time – she seems a very immature 27 year old. But, the part of the novel when Kate is a young child is wonderful, as are the characters of the women who made a difference in her life, Miss Vernon, her aunt Annie, her teacher Miss Carrington. The residents of this small town, including Dr. Christopherson and Reverend Mitchell, and the women who bring food, especially one who was a special friend of their mother, all take an interest in the welfare of the Morrison children and help make it possible for them to stay together in their home. We see it still in a town even as large as our own – true neigbourly generosity when there is a need.
After enjoying Crow Lake so much I went on and re-read Mary Lawson’s second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge. Again, it is a satisfying book in every way – the writing, the characters, the plot – everything we look for in good literary fiction. This time we are in the 1950’s, again in the village of Straun and the surrounding farmland. Dr. Christopherson re-appears, along with his son, Ian, who will resurface in Mary Lawson’s most recent novel, Road Ends. I had remembered the Doctors Christopherson from reading this novel the first time, but I had not remembered Arthur Dunn and his family. Reading the book again, in a different time and place, I found myself more interested in the lives of Arthur, his brother Jake, and Laura, the woman they both love.
Again Mary Lawson captures life in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and a visit to the city, walking down the street, not knowing anyone, can be so liberating – or so frightening. Arthur and Jake are brothers but so completely different, and the love that Jake receives from his mother, at Arthur’s expense, damages these boys for all of their lives.
The novel concludes with Ian Christopherson, many years later, remembering his last year of high school, the year this novel takes place. He tells Arthur’s wife “But I was just a kid. I thought in black and white, back then”. We learn this about ourselves, as well, as we age. It is life experience that makes us more forgiving, more able to understand the reasons for choices made that were hard to comprehend when we were young.
Mary Lawson has the ability to capture a scene in a few very simple words. “She was wearing a white blouse that needed more buttons”. We can see it so clearly. That’s why a writer is a writer and the rest of us are just readers. Lucky us to have the novels of Mary Lawson to read.