The Way the Crow Flies

by Ann-Marie Macdonald
ISBN: 0676974082

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: The Way The Crow Flies
by Clara Thomas

Ann-Marie MacDonald's second novel has been published with press ballyhoo that surpasses anything hitherto accorded a Canadian novel. Her first success, Fall on Your Knees, was both well deserved and remarkable, its sales enhanced immeasurably by its later choice as an "Oprah" book. MacDonald herself is both wonderfully photogenic and intelligently articulate about her writing aims and methods, ensuring the attractive readability of her many interviews. All of these factors, climaxing in a Giller nomination, combine to heighten a reader's expectations almost beyond the possibility of fulfilment before the book is even opened. The book justifies many of the expectations-but not all.
As it opens the McCarthy family is driving toward their new posting in Centralia near London, Ontario, fresh from a posting in Germany. It is 1962. Jack McCarthy is a Wing Commander in the R.C.A.F., about to become second-in-command of the station. During the war, in a training accident, his life was saved by his instructor, Simon, and because Jack did "the right thing" in the split second crisis, he was even decorated and assured of a future air-force career. Madeleine, His wife, always called Mimi, is of Acadian background, a happy wife and mother to the children, Mike, 11, and Madeleine, 8. Mimi is passionately in love with her husband and he with her. The family's easy bilingualism brings a flavour of difference to the tight little society of the station in which they proceed to settle.
To anyone who remembers the 60s and particularly the popular sit-coms of early television, All in the Family and Leave it to Beaver, the McCarthys are a throw-back to those feel-good programmes, mother in her dirndls and pearls, father with his good-natured authority. Mimi is "the missus", Madeleine her father's "old buddy" (and these echoes of Fall on Your Knees are of questionable wisdom in the new novel). Mike is his mother's special child and Madeleine her father's. They are living in a never-never-land of families like themselves, bound tightly by air-force custom, discipline and etiquette, and seemingly in their own impregnable world. It is a world of well marked, accepted divisions between the officer class and the non-commissioned men and their families, with the inevitable factions and couplings of children at school and at play.
MacDonald fractures the blandness of this picture by quickly introducing the exotic "other", Henry Froelich, his wife, Karen, and their adopted children, infant twins, Elizabeth, a victim of cerebral palsy, Colleen and teenage Ricky, who are Metis. Froelich is a math teacher at the station school; young Madeleine notices the tattoo on his arm that signals to us, but not to her, a concentration camp. Karen is different: she simply does not care about the standards of grooming or the surface shine that are so much a part of the prevailing housekeeping ethos. Over all this busy setting MacDonald's frequent insertions into the on-going time-line of the narrative keep us aware of the international context, the Kennedy Presidency, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The foreshadowing of tragedy broods over the entire story from the novel's very first line, "the birds saw the murder," reinforced like a tolling bell as the story moves to its climax.
The serpents in this pseudo-Eden are not long hidden: secrets are everywhere, affecting everyone. With a Dickensian writerly nerve as well as a talent for the grotesque, Macdonald describes the machinations of Madeleine's teacher, Mr. March, a loathsome sexual predator who keeps Madeleine, among other little girls, after school for "exercises". As these become more explicitly sexual and Madeleine dreads the sessions more, she steadfastly keeps her fear and anxiety from her parents. Though Mike realizes that something is wrong with her, Mimi and Jack, safely wrapped in their "happy family" cocoon remain stupidly, culpably "innocent." Besides, Jack has his own secret to protect: the revered Simon is now working as an undercover agent. He has put Jack in charge of Oskar Fried, a Russian scientist who is in the process of defecting to the West, specifically to the United States. Canada is a half-way house for him and Jack must look after him until he can be passed on.
Madeleine is the central pivot of the book. MacDonald gives us a totally believable child in a series of brilliantly coloured, action-filled vignettes, kaleidoscopic, fast-moving, as compelling as watching a film. Madeleine is always in motion, sometimes hanging on to her status as a "little kid" as obsessively as she hangs on to her battered Bugs Bunny, sometimes moving across the threshold to a "big girl" status as she stubbornly shelters her parents from her own crippling victimhood. She is happiest when brother Mike condescends to play with her and disdains her charm bracelet as a "girly-girl" thing. When she grows up she wants to be either a stand-up comic or a spy: her skill at mimicry as she mouths bugs-bunny rejoinders combined with her constant curiosity strongly suggest the possibility of success in both futures. When she is on stage the narrative races along; in comparison the unfolding of Jack's secret, the tale of Oscar Fried, is dull and pedestrian. Particularly ridiculous seem the occasions when, for the sake of total secrecy, Jack has to leave his office and phone Simon on the only pay phone booth on the station. The cloak and dagger elements of the cold war were often frighteningly real at the time, but decades later they bring an element of boys' games and adventure stories into a situation that for Madeleine and her friends is truly, seriously, fraught with peril.
"We are doomed to lose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss": MacDonald's epigraph, from Isaiah Berlin, begins to work itself out with a vengeance as the murder finally occurs. With especially terrible irony, the victim is Claire McCarroll, the daughter of the American seconded to the station to be the safety escort for Oscar Fried. Jack's choice is the most crucial and, inevitably the most crippling: when Ricky Froelich is targeted as the murderer, Jack is the only one whose testimony could give him an airtight alibi. Jack passed him on the fateful afternoon, waved to him and knows that Ricky was pushing his sister in her wheelchair in the opposite direction from the murder site. But Jack was on an errand having to do with Fried and Simon effectively stifles his impulse to speak. No one, of course, listens to Elizabeth's testimony because she is wrongly considered "retarded" mentally as well as crippled physically.
As a child MacDonald spent several years in Centralia, where her Air Force father was stationed. The Stephen Truscott case has haunted her ("I grew up with the shadow of that case"), and it is that gross miscarriage of human rights and justice that sparked this novel. Her handling of the investigation and the trial is particularly well done, as is her portrait of Jack, eternally guilt-ridden, eternally rationalizing his silence: "He salvaged what he could and did his best to believe it: I did not come forward because I knew the life of one boy was less important than the cause of freedom....I did my job." And Ricky? He endured. The death sentence was commuted to life and after a few years an investigation was ordered to decide whether or not there was a legal basis on which to order a new trial, but....The court found insufficient grounds to order a new trial." In 1973 he was paroled and resumed life under a new name.
As for Madeleine-she grew into her true lesbian self and she also became a stand-up comedian: "She performed wherever she could, developing the gourd-like rind that every comic needs and that a woman couldn't live without if she was crazy enough to do stand-up."
This much of the book, its tragedy played out, will seem to be the inevitable ending for many readers. Not for Macdonald, however. With an over-riding compulsion to tie up all the loose ends and pound in the morals, she takes us through another 150 pages in which Madeleine does play the spy, the one who stubbornly unravels the truth of Claire's murder. All the tangled threads finally come together and Madeleine is liberated: "the gift: it fills her like a breath. It is not a knowledge of the mind, it simply arrives; the only thing in the world that matters is love." So the actual murder is minutely described in its horrifying detail as is, finally, Madeleine's own journey to acceptance of the past, and her final, overriding moment of truth: "Nothing can ever frighten her out of her life again. As though she had survived a disaster."
Survival of the emotional rollercoaster of this long and demanding text is also a matter for celebration. However, one reader's rejection of the haste and overabundance of the final section will be another reader's intense satisfaction. By any standard, The Way the Crow Flies is a remarkable achievement.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us