Synopses & Reviews
Mary Lawson's debut novel is a shimmering tale of love, death and redemption set in a rural northern community where time has stood still. Tragic, funny and unforgettable, this deceptively simple masterpiece about the perils of hero worship leapt to the top of the bestseller lists only days after being released in Canada and earned glowing reviews in The New York Times
and The Globe and Mail
, to name a few. It will be published in more than a dozen countries worldwide, including the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Italy and Bulgaria.
Luke, Matt, Kate and Bo Morrison are born in an Ontario farming community of only a few families, so isolated that “the road led only south.” There is little work, marriage choices are few, and the winter cold seeps into the bones of all who dare to live there. In the Morrisons hard-working, Presbyterian house, the Eleventh Commandment is “Thou Shalt Not Emote.” But as descendants of a great-grandmother who “fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning,” the Morrison children have some hope of getting off the land through the blessings of education. Luke, the eldest, is accepted at teachers college -- despite having struggle mightily through school -- but before he can enroll, the Morrison parents are killed in a collision with a logging truck. He gives up his place to stay home and raise his younger sisters -- seven-year-old Kate, and Bo, still a baby.
In this family bound together by loss, the closest relationship is that between Kate and her older brother Matt, who love to wander off to the ponds together and lie on the bank, noses to the water. Matt teaches his little sister to watch “damselflies performing their delicate iridescent dances,” to understand how water beetles “carry down an air bubble with them when they submerge.” The life in the pond is one that seems to go on forever, in contrast to the abbreviated lives of the Morrison parents. Matt becomes Kates hero and her guide, as his passionate interest in the natural world sparks an equal passion in Kate.
Matt, a true scholar, is expected to fulfill the family dream by becoming the first Morrison to earn a university degree. But a dramatic event changes his course, and he ends up a farmer; so it is Kate who eventually earns the doctorate and university teaching position. She is never able to reconcile her success with what she considers the tragedy of Matts failure, and she feels a terrible guilt over the sacrifices made for her. Now a successful biologist in her twenties, she nervously returns home with her partner, a microbiologist from an academic family, to celebrate Matts sons birthday. Amid the clash of cultures, Kate takes us in and out of her troubled childhood memories. Accustomed to dissecting organisms under a microscope, she must now analyze her own emotional life. She is still in turmoil over the events of one fateful year when the tragedy of another local family spilled over into her own. There are things she cannot understand or forgive.
In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, Lawson ratchets up the tension, her narrative flowing with consummate control in ever-increasing circles, overturning ones expectations to the end. Compared by Publishers Weekly to Richard Ford for her lyrical, evocative writing, Lawson combines deeply drawn characters, beautiful writing and a powerful description of the land.
About the Author
Mary Lawson was born and brought up in a farming community in southwestern Ontario. A distant relative of L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables
), she moved to England in 1968, and now lives with her husband in Surrey. She returns to Canada every year. Asked on CBC’s This Morning
what she misses most about Canada, she says without hesitation that it’s the rocks of the Canadian Shield. England has rocks, she says, but they are not smooth and rounded and “whale-like.”
Lawson is a firm believer in the strength of the influences we receive as children, a theme explored in the book. Lawson’s father was a research chemist for an oil company in Sarnia, Ontario, and the family lived in Blackwell, which was then a small farming community -- though not nearly as remote as that of Crow Lake -- and spent summers at a cottage up north.
She studied psychology at McGill University in Montreal in the mid-sixties, and says that Montreal was an eye-opening experience after growing up in Blackwell. “We had the radio, but we had no television, and relative to what kids know today … they are just so much more knowledgeable than we were.” She graduated in 1968 and went to England, finding work in a steel-industry research lab in London, which is where she met her husband, Richard.
Published under the “New Face of Fiction” program at age 55, Lawson calls herself a “late starter,” though she began writing when her sons were small. She joined a creative-writing class, which she continues to attend, mainly for the companionship, and she took literature courses to study other writers. She describes the first novel she wrote, which was set in England, as a disaster: though it was a good story with characters and plot, she didn’t know what she wanted to say. “It was a story without a point.”
Then her parents fell ill with cancer, and she spent a lot of time in Canada. She started writing Crow Lake shortly after the double trauma of her parents dying and her sons leaving home. “I was thinking a lot about the passing of time and different types of loss and the importance of family and the significance of childhood. I think you are particularly receptive when you are a kid, and you take in not just the physical landscape, but the society and the culture and what matters to people. And it all just sits there -- eventually, if you are a writer, it comes out.”
At length, a short story she wrote in the 1980s for Woman’s Realm magazine in England was transformed into Crow Lake. She sent the manuscript out several times before it found the right agent, who then responded enthusiastically within twenty-four hours. The characters in the novel are entirely invented, with the exception of the baby, Bo, who was modelled closely on her own little sister. She was interested in exploring the brother-sister relationship and the notion that family members establish roles for one another which are hard to break free from (“In my family…I’m the ‘Emoter’,” she notes). In particular, she wanted to look at hero worship and what happens “to the worshipper and to the hero” when the hero fails. While indebted to J. D. Salinger for pointing her towards using children as a subject, and to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the technique of writing a book with a child as narrator, Lawson says it was having her own children that taught her that people are born as individuals.
With its powerful emotional resonance, Crow Lake has already won the hearts of many readers, and Lawson’s next novel will be anxiously awaited.
Reading Group Guide
1. Kate says that “understatement was the rule in our house. Emotions, even positive ones, were kept firmly under control.” How would you say that this “rule” affected each member of the Morrison family? How did it influence their relationships with each other and with people outside their family? What are some examples?
2. For the first few weeks following the death of her parents, Kate believes that she was “protected from the reality by disbelief.” How did she carry this defense mechanism with her throughout her childhood and into adulthood? What are some examples?
3. How do you imagine things would have turned out if the children had been separated, as Aunt Annie had arranged? How do you think it would have benefited and/or impeded their growth as individuals and as a family?
4. Guilt is an ongoing theme throughout the book. How did this feeling affect the childrens relationships and the choices they made immediately following the death of their parents? How did it affect their adult lives? Who would you say was most stricken with this feeling?
5. Why do you suppose Kate and Matt were bonded together so strongly? What about Bo and Luke?
6. When you think of a conventional family, stereotypical images come to mind. How does each of the four Morrison children fit in that image? Which child took on which traditional family role? What are some examples?
7. Given the chance to attend university, what choices do you think Matt would have made? Do you think he would have returned to Crow Lake? Why or why not?
8. Matt sees problems clearly and is realistic about solving them, whereas Luke is content to wait for things to work themselves out. Given the situation they were in, what were the advantages and disadvantages of each frame of thinking?
9. Great-grandmother Morrisons love of learning set the standard against which Kate judged everyone around her. Do you think Great-grandmother Morrison would have approved of Kates disappointment in Matt? Why?
10. The Crow Lake community opened its arms wide to the Morrison children after their parents were killed. How does this generosity conflict with the communitys collective reaction to Laurie Pyes disappearance? Why is this?
11. Miss Vernons stories about the history of Crow Lake suggest that some patterns can never be broken. How is this true and/or false for the Pyes and Morrisons?
12. What do the ponds symbolize in this book? What do they represent to Kate and Matt especially?
13. Was Matt doomed to let Kate down in some way? Do you think its possible for any young man to live up to such heroic expectations? Why?
14. What do you imagine happens between Kate and Daniel after the book ends?
15. Do you think Kates resentment and distaste toward Marie will lessen as she rebuilds her relationship with Matt?
16. What could Kate learn from Matt to make herself a better teacher? Do you think she will enjoy teaching more when she returns from Simons birthday party?
17. We are meant to assume that Luke and Miss Carrington develop a romantic relationship at the end of the book. Do you think they are compatible? Why or why not? What are some examples?
18. Kate and Mrs. Stanovich are complete opposites when it comes to dealing with tragedy and hardship. What do you think each woman could learn from the other?
19. Daniel believes that Kate is incapable of empathy. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
20. What do you think would have become of Luke had his parents not been killed?
21. As a consequence of the events of her childhood, Kate is a rather judgmental, withdrawn young woman. Nevertheless, Daniel falls in love with her. What do you think he sees in her, under her protective shell?