If you know Ontario, you know the places like Crow Lake. The tiny towns, the stone of the Canadian Shield, the smell of the lakes in the summer, the way the trees grow. Mary Lawson effortlessly creates a fictional space out of this real world. Crow Lake the town isn’t real but Crow Lake (Vintage Canada, 2002) the book convinces you it is.
Our narrator is Kate. Late twenties, trying to explain the tragedy of her life. Of her siblings’ lives. While Kate is currently living in Toronto, teaching and researching at a university, most of the story is of her childhood and is told in memories and flashbacks.
At the age of seven, Kate lives with her family in Crow Lake. Her father has a good job at the bank in the next town. She is the oldest daughter, with a baby sister, Bo, and two older brothers. Luke, nineteen, has just been accepted to teacher’s college but Matt, seventeen, is the truly brilliant one of the family. He has a passion for the world around him and he and Kate spend many happy days at “their pond”, observing insect life and the natural world.
Then, as it sometimes does, tragedy darts into their lives to change their paths forever. Their parents are killed in a car accident. In an effort to keep the family together and give Matt his chance at further education, Luke gives up his place at college to stay home with Bo and Kate and allow Matt to finish high school. As Kate’s narration slowly unfurls this history, interrupted with peeks into her present where she prepares to return to Crow Lake to celebrate her nephew’s eighteenth birthday, it begins to be clear that Matt has never left Crow Lake.
It is Kate’s intense adoration of her older brother that drives the novel, as well as being crux of much of the tension. From the very beginning, Kate is filled with admiration for Matt. She credits him with instilling in her her love of nature and of learning, of being the reason that she is where she is. When someone asks her if she ever had a teacher who inspired her at a young age, she says yes and we know that she means Matt. And yet, we also see that he is not much a part of her current life.
The novel is well-paced, with a terrific rate of revelation. There always seems to be something left unrevealed, so I always wanted to keep reading. At the same time, I never felt like Kate was withholding information, or as though the story wasn’t being told quickly enough. When the final punch – the final tragedy of the Morrison family as Kate remembers it – is revealed, it comes both as a surprise and as an inevitable outcome of the characters that Lawson has created.
My major problem with Crow Lake in fact may not be much of a problem at all. Perhaps it’s even one that Lawson intended. Mainly, I felt that Kate was admiring the wrong brother. While Matt is definitely a likeable character and there is an easy affection between them, I thought it was Luke who is the true hero of this story. It is Luke who makes that initial sacrifice. And then seems to continuously sacrifice himself up on the altar of his family. While the final tragic revelation belongs to Matt, it’s not hard to imagine how it would be a blow to Luke as well. Kate seems to brush much of this aside in favour of her obvious preference and admiration for Matt and the connection they share. In this, perhaps, Lawson has captured something truly human. The blindness love gives us so that all we see is the brilliance and tragedy surrounding the one we love most. There are hints though that the reader may be intended to see more. In particular, Luke and Matt are tested in one similar way and their responses are vastly different, as are the outcomes.
Read Crow Lake and you’ll want to sit quietly by a pond, watch the insects skate soundlessly across the surface, tell your loved ones you forgive them after all.