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The Way the Crow Flies

by Ann-Marie MacDonald

It seems amazing that no Canadian fiction writer up to now has taken on the story of Steven Truscott. A number of non-fiction books have been written over the years about the 1959 death of 12-year-old Lynn Harper on a southern Ontario air-force base, and the corrupt trial and unjust punishment of her 14-year-old friend Truscott for her murder. But unless or until the Canadian public learns the true identity of Lynn’s killer, there remains a wealth of mystery around this case for a fiction writer to feast on.

And that’s what Ann-Marie MacDonald has done in her second, long-awaited, and hugely hyped novel. I must be one of the five Canadian readers who felt no compulsion to read Fall on Your Knees, MacDonald’s Cape Breton tale of incest and melodrama, so you’ll find no comparisons in this review. The Way the Crow Flies has its moments of melodrama – how could it not with the still, sad body of a strangled little girl at its centre? – but for the most part, this is an engrossing and ingeniously plotted portrait of a “perfect” 1960s Canadian family coming to terms with all its imperfections.

MacDonald has opted to tell the murder story “slant,” as Emily Dickinson would say. Instead of focussing on Ricky Froelich, her fictional stand-in for Truscott, and his eccentric family that sticks out like a sore thumb on the squeaky-clean, early-1960s Canadian Air Force Base of Centralia, near London, Ontario, she views the events through the eyes of Jack McCarthy, career air force man, and his young daughter Madeleine.

This structure allows her to explore in rich detail the stiflingly “normal” culture of those post-war years when young Canadian couples had babies in record numbers and were determined to lead perfect, happy lives. Events like the Cuban missile crisis shook things up a bit, to be sure, but mostly it was a time of backyard barbecues and wives who changed into their good clothes before hubby came home for dinner.

Long before the murder occurs, we have learned fascinating and terrible secrets about both Jack and Madeleine. Jack is intrigued by geopolitics and he’s been fingered by his former RAF flying instructor, now based in Washington, to help bring a refugee German scientist into Canada, keep him on ice for a few months, and then facilitate his entry into the United States where he is destined for work on the space program.

No one must know about Jack’s baby-sitting client, and no one does, until his next-door neighbour, Henry Froelich, a teacher on the base who had entered Canada as a Holocaust survivor, recognizes the man as a Nazi who worked with Werhner von Braun in developing the V-2 rocket in a mountain cave in Germany during the war.

Meanwhile, Jack’s daughter Madeleine, a smart, funny eight-year-old, goes to school on the base, hangs out with her friends singing “Moon River” and imitating Bugs Bunny, and catches the eye of her predatory teacher, Mr. March, who creates an after-school group of little girls who need extra work on mental concentration. The work involves “exercises,” back-bends designed to carry blood to the brain, with Mr. March “spotting” the girls with his thighs so they won’t fall down.

As he moves from one level of physical outrage to the next, he brilliantly reminds each of the girls that all of this is happening because of their original shortcomings in class, which he promises not to mention to their parents if they won’t. In fact, they start getting straight-A report cards, which makes mom and dad very happy.

Once these secrets are well-established, Macdonald moves her main action into place: the murder of one of Madeleine’s friends, by strangulation, after inept sexual penetration, in a nearby meadow. Young Ricky Froelich, a Metis foster child of the Holocaust-survivor neighbour of the McCarthys, is accused of the crime. For their own reasons, Jack and Madeleine, each of them possessing crucial information, manage to betray Ricky, knowing that he is innocent. The Froelich family is the first to self-destruct under the weight of Ricky’s wrongful conviction, but the McCarthys, bowed by their sins of commission and omission, are not far behind.

Macdonald leads us down one path toward a likely suspect for the murder, only to veer sharply at the book’s end toward another. Readers who have already slogged through close to 700 pages may feel skeptical, possibly even irritated, about the story’s resolution. The first three-quarters of The Way the Crow Flies are solid and captivating, the final quarter a somewhat disappointing and navel-gazing denouement.