Synopses & Reviews
“The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolor. Everyone had the same idea. Lets get married. Lets have kids. Lets be the ones who do it right.”
The Way the Crow Flies, the second novel by bestselling, award-winning author Ann-Marie MacDonald, is set on the Royal Canadian Air Force station of Centralia during the early sixties. It is a time of optimism -- infused with the excitement of the space race but overshadowed by the menace of the Cold War -- filtered through the rich imagination and quick humour of eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy and the idealism of her father, Jack, a career officer.
As the novel opens, Madeleines family is driving to their new home; Centralia is her fathers latest posting. They have come back from the Old World of Germany to the New World of Canada, where the towns hold memories of the Europeans who settled there. For the McCarthys, it is “the best of both worlds.” And they are a happy family. Jack and Mimi are still in love, Madeleine and her older brother, Mike, get along as well as can be expected. They all dance together and barbecue in the snow. They are compassionate and caring. Yet they have secrets.
Centralia is the station where, years ago, Jack crashed his plane and therefore never went operational; instead of being killed in action in 1943, he became a manager. Although he is successful, enjoys “flying a desk” and is thickening around the waist from Mimis good Acadian cooking, deep down Jack feels restless. His imagination is caught by the space race and the fight against Communism; he believes landing a man on the moon will change the world, and anything is possible. When his old wartime flying instructor appears out of the blue and asks for help with the secret defection of a Soviet scientist, Jack is excited to answer the call of duty: now he has a real job.
Madeleines secret is “the exercise group”. She is kept behind after class by Mr. March, along with other little girls, and made to do “backbends” to improve her concentration. As the abusive situation worsens, she is convinced that she cannot tell her parents and risk disappointing them. No one suspects, even when Madeleines behaviour changes: in the early sixties people still believe that school is “one of the safest places.” Colleen and Ricky, the adopted Metis children of her neighbours, know differently; at the school they were sent to after their parents died, they had been labelled “retarded” because they spoke Michif.
Then a little girl is murdered. Ricky is arrested, although most people on the station are convinced of his innocence. At the same time, Rickys father, Henry Froelich, a German Jew who was in a concentration camp, identifies the Soviet scientist hiding in the nearby town as a possible Nazi war criminal. Jack alone could provide Rickys alibi, but the Cold War stakes are politically high and doing “the right thing” is not so simple. “Show me the right thing and I will do it,” says Jack. As this very local murder intersects with global forces, The Way the Crow Flies reminds us that in time of war the lines between right and wrong are often blurred.
Ann-Marie MacDonald said in a discussion with Oprah Winfrey about her first book, “a happy ending is when someone can walk out of the rubble and tell the story.” Madeleine achieves her childhood dream of becoming a comedian, yet twenty years later she realises she cannot rest until she has renewed the quest for the truth, and confirmed how and why the child was murdered.. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called The Way the Crow Flies “absorbing, psychologically rich…a chronicle of innocence betrayed”. With compassion and intelligence, and an unerring eye for the absurd as well as the confusions of childhood, , MacDonald evokes the confusion of being human and the necessity of coming to terms with our imperfections.
From the Hardcover edition.
In The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald takes us back to the early 1960's, a time of optimism infused with the excitement of the space race and overshadowed by the menace of the Cold War--a world filtered through the imagination of Madeleine McCarthy, a spirited nine-year-old. Unaware that her father, Jack, is caught up in his own web of secrets, she at first welcomes her family's posting to a sleepy air force base in southern Ontario.
The base, however, is home to some intriguing inhabitants, including the unconventional Froehlich family, and the odd Mr. March, whose power over the children is a secret burden that they carry. Then tragedy strikes, and a local murder intersects with global forces, binding the participants for life. As tension in the McCarthy's household builds, Jack must decide where his loyalty lies, and Madeleine learns about the ambiguity of human morality--a lesson that will become clear only when the quest for the truth, and the killer, is renewed twenty years later.
About the Author
Ann-Marie MacDonald was born in West Germany and spent the first few years of her life on a Canadian air force station near Baden Baden. Her father was an officer in the RCAF and the family was posted numerous times.
She attended one year at Carleton University, Ottawa, studying languages and Classics. She went to the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal where she trained as an actor, graduating from the program in 1980. She moved to Toronto where she began an acting career. She soon became involved in creating original Canadian work in a number of contexts: collective creation, collaboration and solo writing. The work always combined theatrical innovation, politics and entertainment. She worked as an independent artist, with Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille as her principal theatre “homes.” Her seminal works include the collective creation This is For You, Anna, and the multi-episodic Nancy Drew: Clue in the Fast Lane. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was MacDonalds first solo-authored work.
She continued to work as an actor in theatres across the country and in many independent films, including Ive Heard the Mermaids Singing, Where the Spirit Lives and Better Than Chocolate. As well, she guest-starred on numerous television series, most recently Made in Canada. MacDonald was last on stage in the spring of 2001 when she starred in a sold-out production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto. Currently, MacDonald is host of the CBC series Life and Times.
Her more recent work for theatre includes the play The Arabs Mouth, the libretto for the chamber opera Nigredo Hotel, the collectively created The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls in which she also performed, and, most recently, the book and lyrics for the musical comedy Anything That Moves.
MacDonalds work as an actor and writer has been honoured with a number of awards, including the Governor Generals Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Canadian Authors Association Award, the Dartmouth Award, the Gemini Award, the Chalmers Award and the Dora Mavor Moore Award.
Fall on Your Knees was MacDonalds first novel and is available from Vintage Canada. She lives in Toronto with her partner, her daughter and two dogs.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. We learn in the beginning that the girl who is murdered wears a charm bracelet. Why does the author introduce another charm bracelet, given by Mimi to Madeleine?
2. What does it tell us about Jack that he still thinks of his old teacher Simon as his best friend although hes hardly seen him in twenty years?
3. Jack realizes long after other people that Froelich is Jewish. He thinks Madeleine is “sunny and light,” and he thinks school is a safe place. Like Madeleine, we start to feel sorry for him. Jack and Madeleine are shown simultaneously as innocents who are taken advantage of. As the parallel plot threads unfold, how do our feelings change about Jack?
4. Centralia is called “Gods country.” Madeleine muses on the idea that God loves the souls of children best of all: “They are his favourite. Yum. Like the giant in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.” She thinks guardian angels wait for something bad to happen to you and saints watch children being murdered. How do her observations of the cruelty of life affect our sense of justice in the world she inhabits?
5. How does keeping the secrets affect Madeleine and her fathers characters? Do you think there is a moral message to be found?
6. “There was actually quite a bit of intermarriage between the Acadians and the native Indians, wasnt there?” asks Karen Froelich. It gradually becomes clear that Mimi, the Acadian who sings “un Acadien errant,” and Colleen, whose father played Cajun music and who says, “Chu en woyaugeur, ji rest partou,” have a shared ancestral past. What is the significance of this? How does the story of Ricky and Colleen reinforce the theme of government-sanctioned atrocity during war?
7. The way people dress seems to tell much about peoples characters in the novel. Discuss with reference to the Froelichs, Mimi, Marjorie Nolan and Madeleine.
8. Mimi says men understand less than women, and women have to work to make them feel good. How does Mimis insistence on femininity and looking after men affect the unfolding of the plot, if at all?
9. One reviewer has said “The finale comes as a thunderclap, rearranging the readers vision of everything that has gone before.” Do you agree with this statement?
10. What does the novel say about the nature of family love?
11. How did you feel about the “fairy tale” of the slaves in the mountain?
12. How do you interpret recurring animal symbols such as the deer (Bambi, the deer that appears when Madeleine and Colleen visit the place where Claire was killed, the deer that inadvertently killed Colleen and Rickys parents) and the dogs (Rex, the dog killed in the space Sputnik satellite, the dog in the drain the night Claire goes missing)?
From the Hardcover edition.
Q: It has been seven years since Fall on Your Knees was published. Now that your newest novel, The Way the Crow Flies, is out in bookstores everywhere, will your writing continue to be a priority?
A: It’s not a question of “Would I be able to find time to write?” After I’ve finished every big project, the way I comfort and soothe myself is by telling myself I never have to write anything again. But this is very different. It’s “Will I be able to convince myself to stop writing now?” Because you know what happens when you start: you have to finish. At least I do. And for me, it’s like smoking. If you don’t start, you won’t have to finish. So don’t start writing a book. Kids, don’t start!
Q. What was the inspiration for The Way the Crow Flies?
A. I can’t say that in one word or one line. I can say that in 720 pages . . . which I did! But I always begin with images, and in this case I really began with the image of that cornfield and the image of a kid on those PMQs [the housing quarters] on that air force station. It’s like a Kodak photo. There was a terrible melancholy and tremendous promise about that picture and I needed to make up a story to explain it. And I was also very driven to make connections between the grown-up and patriarchal world of the early 1960s and the domestic world — of children especially. How those things are supposed to be kept separate and how the adult world supposedly functions for the sake of the children’s. Anytime anyone ever says they’re doing something for the sake of the children, I smell a rat. And I also don’t believe in keeping our worlds apart. I believe our worlds are connected — even across seemingly unbridgeable gulfs. What do the Nazi slave labour camps in WWII have to do with an idyllic post-war neighbourhood? Well, possibly everything. Our everyday lives thread back into the past — they’ve been paid for somehow.
Q. International controversies like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the harbouring of war criminals and NASA’s quest for the moon play an integral part in the story. Were you consciously giving Canada, a country that has a quiet international reputation, an active role in these world events?
A. I’m basically describing what did happen. Canada did have a role. And it was a pretty classic role — the role that we continue to play. That nexus of events that I describe in the novel is not dissimilar to what we’ve just gone through with Iraq. And it’s not dissimilar to what we’ve just gone through with the Challenger exploding, killing the astronauts, and the in-fighting at NASA and the prioritization of a fantasy missile shield in the sky. The continuing militarization of space.
And where is Canada in all of this? Canada is always caught between Britain and the U.S. Most recently we’ve seen Britain and the U.S. holding hands again, and continuing to hold hands, and though Canada this time opted out of that triad in a way, it’s a dynamic that has been going on ever since Canada became a nation. We’re the youngest child but we’re always caught in between. And that comes with a price — but it also comes with some privileges. We have a privileged perspective. Once I dug into Canada’s experience, our political stance in the Cuban missile crisis, it became very interesting because that time in our history really does paint a very articulate picture of where Canada often finds itself: caught between the old Empire, i.e., Britain, and the new, i.e., the U.S. And Canada has this nice, innocent look but in fact our hands are not really clean. How can they be? You can never have completely pure hands. I don’t believe in purity anyway, but let’s at least be honest about what we’ve been into.
Q. There are some complex little girls in this novel. Why did you decide to write the story from Madeleine’s perspective?
A. That evolved, like everything else does in a book. The points of view that are going to be primary rise up because they are the healthiest stalks in the garden. Certainly Madeleine and Jack are the pair in this story. That’s the dual perspective and each of them represent the world I’ve just sketched: the domestic sphere that was held separate from the political sphere; the grown-up sphere versus the child’s sphere; the very masculine sphere from the feminine sphere, and how we keep these worlds apart at our peril. They actually need to communicate and they need to mix it up. Jack and Madeleine just seemed like a really good duo.
There’s of course a lot of archetypal power in the father-daughter story too. We tend never to tire of either writing it or reading it. And there’s a price to pay for certain kinds of fathers and daughters. There’s a great deal of love in the family in this story obviously, and Jack can be seen as a very progressive father, especially when he treats his daughter as though she were a son for example, not pigeon-holing her by making her be a traditional girl (and I’m talking again period-wise — the early 60s) — he’s very concerned that his daughter have all the opportunities that his son will have. He’s progressive, he’s beloved, and in a couple of critical ways, he’s terribly wrong.
Everyone grows up and then separates from their parents. In this case a prized daughter has to separate from a cherished father for dire reasons. It’s not simple. It’s very easy to reject the villains when they have come from the outside. It’s a much more complex affair when there’s love involved and genuine value.
I read a book about Albert Speer [Hitler’s minister of armaments], called Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, and one of the most interesting aspects of that book was how his daughter struggled to continue to understand her love and respect for her father while also despising his crimes.
Q. What do you like most about touring?
A. Usually I get asked about what I like least about touring! What do I like most about touring? I like meeting my readers. I like reading to readers.
Q. Your books are published all over the world. Is there a distinctly Canadian response to your work?
A. I don’t know. I’m very interested in the answer to that question. And I don’t think I have enough anecdotal evidence. I think clearly Canadians have that extra edge of identification. They really get some things in my writing. I think there’s also something about us as Canadian readers where we feel vindicated to see our point of view front and centre because it’s so often marginalized, or it’s on page 7 in the bottom left hand corner, if it’s there at all.
I think people around the world can identify with our particular Canadian perspective because we live in the shadow of a superpower. On the one hand, the U.S. is our ally. But the whole Iraq thing has again led a lot of people to question their relationship with power, and we have to do that every day all the time — both because we get so much out of our relationship and we’re such close friends and neighbours with the U.S. and because it can also be so chilling, depending on who’s in charge.
Q. Are there any books that you wish you had written?
A. No, because I’m just so terribly relieved that I didn’t have to write them, and that I didn’t have to go through the pain and agony of creating them. I just had to enjoy them!
Q. What are your favourite books?
A. Books like Jane Eyre and Huckleberry Finn are formative books for me. And The Child in Time by Ian McEwan had a big impact on me many years ago.
Q. Are there authors writing today whose books you can’t wait to read?
A. There are tons! I always hate having to name names because I always leave out everybody. I want to catch up on my Canadian reading. There’s a lot of great fiction coming out lately and while I’m writing fiction I’m very hard-pressed to enjoy reading it. I read it too analytically and I’d rather read as a reader.
I want to read Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Atonement by Ian McEwan. I also want to read Gail Anderson-Dargatz — she’s had two books since her first novel and I’d like to catch up on what she’s been doing. And I’ve always wanted to read The Wives of Bath by Susan Swan.
Q. Have you ever considered writing books for children?
A. It has crossed my mind. I wonder what would happen, and where it would go.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. Family. The thing is there’s either too much touring to do or there’s a screenplay in the works for Fall on Your Knees or there are other projects of mine that I might return to, projects for theatre. There’s plenty for me to do, but starting a big new work is something that I would like to not do for the next couple of years. I think life will be full enough without starting to follow that string into the labyrinth. I don’t want to miss out on my child.
From the Hardcover edition.