Crow Lake

by Mary Lawson

Published by Knopf Canada

333 pages, 2002

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In Praise of Late Bloomers

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


The success of Mary Lawson's tender, vibrant first novel Crow Lake has been the sort of Cinderella story that gives middle-aged women writers (this one included) a lot of hope. It's one of those "overnight sensation after 20 years of effort" scenarios that implies a great deal of moral fiber and perseverance in the author. This trait of steadfastness (dare I say faith?) sounds loud and clear in the novel itself, which is so deep and dimensional, so polished and true, that it makes you wonder why agents weren't pounding down her door long before this.

But such are the vagaries of the publishing biz. The important thing is that someone finally gave the 55-year-old Lawson a break, so that we now get to enjoy a heart-tuggingly beautiful piece of work by an author who clearly knows what she is doing.

The opening paragraph is a stunner:

My great-grandmother Morrison fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning, or so the story goes. And one Saturday evening she became so absorbed in her book that when she looked up, she found that it was half past midnight and she had spun for half an hour on the Sabbath day. Back then, that counted as a major sin.

This passage tells us volumes about the Morrison clan -- their unquenchable passion for learning squashed down hard by an iron sense of duty. But it reveals even more about our narrator Kate, a 26-year-old woman reflecting back on her anguished childhood from the seemingly safe vantage point of worldly success as a professor of invertebrate biology.

Four hundred miles away from the tiny northern community she grew up in, the adult Kate has supposedly won the ultimate Morrison prize: she is educated, she has escaped rural impoverishment and isolation, and she is making her way by her wits. But with all her apparent advantages, Kate is anything but free. In fact the past has a stranglehold on her so life-choking that it has left her almost unable to feel. Her backward reflections are an attempt to probe the course of her life to determine just exactly where she lost herself.

"Memories. I'm not in favor of them, by and large. Not that there aren't some good ones, but on the whole I'd like to put them in an airtight cupboard and close the door." Well might Kate fear memories, for at the tender age of seven her small world shattered in an instant when both her parents were killed in a catastrophic car accident.

They had gone into town to buy a suitcase. The fact that the Morrison family didn't even own one reveals worlds about their isolation in Crow Lake, but the suitcase is a powerful symbol of the fact that one of them was about to get out. Kate's older brother Luke, 19 years old and a diligent student, has just won a scholarship for teacher's college -- a sort of miracle for a family in which finishing high school was a luxury only earned after generations of sacrifice and toil.

The best of times, elation over Luke's breakthrough, turns into the very worst with a sickening crash. In a blinding instant four children are orphaned: Luke, 17-year-old Matt, Kate, and baby Bo who is only 18 months old.

Many reviewers have interpreted Crow Lake as the story of how a family copes with sudden and massive bereavement, and it is that. But Lawson imbues her writing with such liquid depths that it becomes a delicate prose-poem on the theme of relationship. At the heart of the novel is Kate's intense and nearly worshipful connection to her gifted brother, Matt, who ignites her lifelong love of science by taking her down to the ponds to observe the wonder of wild things:

Sticklebacks were drifting aimlessly about. The breeding season was over so it was hard to tell the males and the females apart. When they were breeding the males were very beautiful, with red underparts and silvery scales on their backs and brilliant blue eyes...

"What do the females do?" I'd asked him.

"Oh, laze around. Go to tea parties. Gossip with their friends. You know what females are like."

"No, but really Matt. What do they do?"

"I don't know. Eat a lot, probably. Probably they need to recover their strength after producing all those eggs."

The idyllic atmosphere Lawson creates in these trips to the ponds tugs at all of us who can remember gleaming jewels of magic even in the midst of the most turbulent childhood. But this poem to relationship extends far beyond Kate's adulation of her brother.

The fiercely loving yet heated rivalry between Matt and Luke (the "responsible" one) is one of the most realistic portrayals of brotherly war in recent literature. It's a tender battle, but the two can be wild as snorting stallions with each other, and sometimes even come to blows. Luke is determined to make the supreme sacrifice of his education and future in order to hold the traumatized family together, but Matt hates the gut-twisting guilt this near-martyrdom stirs up in him.

And then there are the Pyes. Just off-camera, this neighboring farming family endures another sort of trauma, the chronic, escalating generational cycle of violence begetting violence. The Morrisons and the Pyes are entwined by more than the fact that the boys make a little extra money helping out on the farm. They are caught in a sort of deadlock that becomes much more than psychological by the novel's end.

Kate's life as an esteemed professor should be rich, but in fact is peculiarly barren and bloodless. For the first time in her life she is becoming seriously interested in a man, a fellow professor named Daniel, and it is almost more than she can endure: "You must understand: I had never thought that I would really love anyone. It hadn't been on the cards, as far as I was concerned. To be honest, I had thought that such intensity of feeling was beyond me."

Intensity of feeling is not beyond her at all, but merely deeply repressed, a survival mechanism for coping with massive grief (but also a living out of the Morrison family edict: "Thou Shalt Not Emote"). This repression and its steep, life-sapping cost is familiar to so many of us who grew up with families where tightlipped reserve was the norm.

There is a sense in Crow Lake of pent-up energy, of something about to burst open or explode, but it never quite happens. Lawson is so masterful at describing the trauma of small children that it sometimes shocked me into tears, as in this hair-raising passage where Matt and Luke physically fight:

I thought the walls of the house would shatter and fall down around us. I thought the end of the world had come. And then I knew it had, because in the middle of all the uproar a movement beside me caught my eye and I looked down and saw Bo shaking so that even her hair seemed to vibrate. She'd gone rigid, her arms sticking down stiffly at her sides, fingers spread, and her mouth was open wide and tears were pouring down her face but she wasn't making a sound.

Betrayal is another major theme. Given the dizzying pedestal Matt had to stand on all through Kate's childhood, how could he fail to fall? Yet a chance for a kind of reconciliation comes up when Kate receives an invitation to the 18th birthday party of Matt's son Simon. At first she won't even consider inviting Daniel, so deep is her reserve and mistrust (not to mention a certain embarrassment about taking him to Crow Lake). But in his own gentle way Daniel has the means to unlock the airless vault of Kate's heart. This leads her to the kind of painful, hard-won insight that is literally life-changing.

Lawson gets everything right here, especially the minor characters -- the good folks of Crow Lake who demonstrate a bustling kindness to the bereaved family, and in particular the toddler Bo, a howling, drippy-nosed little terror who somehow comes across as endearing. And the writing is sometimes groaningly beautiful:

Some days thousands of milkweed pods would burst open together, triggered by the heat of the sun; thousands and thousands of small silent explosions repeating themselves in salvos down the miles of tracks. On those days I walked through clouds of silken down drifting about like smoke in the morning breeze.

Poetry, indeed. Mary Lawson is a treasure, a new voice maturing into her gift in mid-life. A younger writer never would have caught all these nuances. Let us rejoice in the discovery of this subtle, graceful, late-blooming talent. | June 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.