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Crow Lake

by Mary Lawson

Crow Lake begins at a luminous moment for the Morrison family. Luke, the eldest son, has been accepted at teachers’ college, the first of the family to go on to higher education. Matt, two years younger, is even more gifted, a rising academic star.

That bright future is blindsided a day later by a logging truck that leaves both parents dead. The community rallies round, but splitting up the family seems inevitable. Besides Luke and Matt, there are two little sisters, seven-year-old Kate – the book’s narrator – and Bo, still a baby. Luke sacrifices college to keep them all together.

Crow Lake plays out the tensions between two fundamental elements of the Canadian psyche: ties to the land and faith in education. Lawson emphasizes the land’s destructive power, especially in the unforgiving climate of northern Ontario. Held out as a gift and a promise, for many the land has been only a bitter burden, dragging down successive generations. Delivery lies in education, for the Morrisons symbolized by a great-grandmother who believed so strongly in learning that she nailed a bookstand to her spinning wheel.

Every detail in this beautifully written novel rings true, the characters so solid we almost feel their flesh. Bo must be one of the most vividly realized infants in recent literature. Lawson creates a community without ever giving in to the Leacockian impulse to poke fun at small-town ways, instead showing respect to lives shaped by hard work and starved for physical comfort. The adult Kate’s alienation from Crow Lake is initially difficult to accept, for everything in Kate’s life, including her career in science, reflects the values of her formative years on the farm. Soon, though, her crippling guilt becomes the mystery that draws the reader on.

First-time novelist Lawson was born in a small Ontario farming community and moved to England in 1968. The time away has given her vision a stunning clarity.