The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald
MacDonald, author of the New York Times bestseller, Fall on Your Knees, tackles some touchy subjects in her acclaimed novel, The Way the Crow Flies (2003). The novel was inspired, in part, by the dramatic true-life story of Stephen Truscott, the Canadian fourteen year old convicted in 1960 of murdering Lynn Harper. Truscott’s death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Upon appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, he was eventually released with a new identity in 1969. He steadfastly maintained his innocence and was finally acquitted. His conviction was deemed a “miscarriage of justice.”
MacDonald’s novel, set in an Air Force base outside of Kitchener, Ontario, meshes the 1960’s fixation on the Cold War and the space race with the personal tragedy of a young girl’s sexual molestation by her teacher during the same time period. The two threads collide in the murder of a classmate and the arrest and conviction of a neighbourhood boy.
The novel opens so hopefully: “The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolor. Everyone had the same idea. Let’s get married. Let’s have kids. Let’s be the ones who do it right.” MacDonald’s ambitious premise stacks layers of global, communal, and individual loss of innocence onto the idyllic town of Centralia. The pretty decade of the fifties with its “many-splendored things (Chapter 1)” is crushed by the weight of this epidemic of violation. Madeleine loses her innocence at the hands of her abuser. Her father loses his innocence as he becomes ensnared in morally ambiguous political intrigue. Centralia loses its innocence as it unwittingly harbours a pedophile, while hurrying to condemn an innocent teen of a horrific crime. In a rush to excise the malignancies of WWII, the Western world loses its innocence profiting from Nazi science and technology.
While the concept of the book is brilliant, I think its comprehensive scope ultimately detracts from its final achievement. The narrative is clogged by a sprawling ponderousness that generates detachment rather than involvement. It’s a very patient reader who will wade through the minutiae of colour commentary to follow the actual plot. Like a drippy Big Mac, the slogans, ads, songs, and catch phrases of the 60’s practically leak from the text. Soon the constant reminders spark frustration: “OK. I get it. You did your research. Tell the story already.”
The subject matter of sexual exploitation also makes the novel a tough read. The teacher’s predatory manipulation of the little girls in his class is skilfully depicted and not excessively graphic, but I kept finding reasons to avoid finishing the book. As a teacher myself, and mother and grandmother, I had to swallow my emotional bile to keep reading, but this “war” was wholly credible. Distasteful as it is, MacDonald’s reminder about the vulnerability of children continues to be timely.
MacDonald is not quite as convincing in her treatment of the Cold War. The ethical ambiguities that arise on the world stage after World War II trickle down into the personal lives of the citizens on the Air Base. A variety of characters grapple with the ramifications of collusion with the enemy as Nazi war criminals and scientists are spirited out of Europe to bolster American space programs. Perhaps I am too Canadian and ordinary to suspend my disbelief. An international spy ring operating in sleepy southwestern Ontario? Not really buying it.
A final word on the characters. Fearlessly honest and guilelessly dishonest, Madeleine the child is endearing. Her friend, prickly Colleen, the adopted Métis daughter of mysterious neighbours, is also memorable. She becomes Madeleine’s tutor in schoolyard nastiness and pranks. Their quirky classmates at school are similarly believable. MacDonald’s delineation of the childhood experience is flawless.
The adults in the novel, however, suffer from artifice. They are far less engaging than the children, particularly Madeleine’s parents, Jack, the career military man and Mimi, the perfect homemaker. Living in a “June and Ward Cleaver bubble,” they are one-dimensional characters, almost stylized. I didn’t really care about them until the end of the novel when the peeling blisters of their choices suddenly ooze fresh and raw, and they confront the truth of their lives. Interestingly, although the youthful Madeleine was impish and loveable, I cared less and less about her as she reached adulthood. She grew increasingly selfish, manic, and grotesque. The sympathetic bond I had with her at the outset of her story slipped away.
It occurs to me that perhaps that’s what MacDonald intended.