Knopf Canada, 2002
294 pages; hardcover
First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
Successful passage from childhood to maturity requires, at some point, a thoughtful reassessment by the adult individual of what are often sharply emotional and deeply held positions, forged in childhood by an immature consciousness but still casting widespread influence in later life. Fine and good. Understood. But how, I ask you, can one be expected to accomplish such a feat if one is…Presbyterian???!!! Or, in a more general sense, if one can make any claim to a WASP heritage and sensibility?
A frivolous question, one might think, but it is, in fact, the central concern of Mary Lawson’s accomplished first novel, Crow Lake, and she is very right to ask it. Idealistic and intensely loyal, practical, low-maintenance to the point of aloofness, and wryly humorous by nature, WASPS (even Presbyterians) have many useful and endearing traits, but, it has to be said, self-knowledge and emotional maturity tend not to be foremost amongst them. We tend, truth be told, to be emotional blockheads. (Of solid WASP extraction myself, in all directions, as far as the eye can see, I claim some latitude here, viv-avis current political correctness and cultural stereotyping.) It is the unavoidable fact that a fully realized life will demand, at some point, an emotional accounting, that forms the central tragicomedy of a WASP existence.
Such is the case for Kate Morrison, the story’s narrator. Born into the small community of the title, in the wilds of northern Ontario, Kate is of solid Presbyterian stock, part of the fourth generation of a family presided over then, and to the present day, by the ferocious will of the “Great-Grandmother.” She was a stern Victorian dynamo whose photograph still dominated the Morrison household, and, as Kate laconically observes, explained instantly “why there are no stories about her children misbehaving.” Yet her love of knowledge was so profound that she fixed books to her spinning wheel in an attempt to learn about the world while raising fourteen children. As Kate begins to tell her story, Great-Grandmother’s fondest ambitions are about to be realized because “after three generations of striving, a member of the Morrison family was about to go on to higher education.” Luke, Kate’s eldest brother had been accepted at teacher’s college and, as Kate explains, it was a bit of a surprise because he was not considered the scholar of the family. That honour went to Matt, the second oldest, a brilliant student just finishing high school, who was widely expected to enjoy a stellar academic career.
Tragedy, however, intervenes in the form of a car accident which leaves seven-year-old Kate and her three siblings (Luke, Matt, and youngest sister Bo, eighteen months) suddenly orphaned and alters everyone’s destiny. With the help of a loving community, the older brothers determine to raise their two sisters and keep the family together. Sacrifices and mistakes are made, dreams abandoned, and in the end, it is only Kate, her love of knowledge inspired by her brilliant brother’s mentorship, who ends up with an academic career, and, coincidentally, a guilt complex the size of the GTA.
Nearly two decades later, on the eve of her return to Crow Lake to celebrate her nephew Simon’s eighteenth birthday, Kate’s moment of accounting arrives. With her own inability to connect emotionally with those around her threatening the first truly important love interest in her life and her family relationships, particularly with her adored brother Matt, growing increasingly superficial and distant, it may be her last chance to admit to the emotional power of her childhood experience, to come to understand, from an adult perspective, its influence on her life, and to reconfigure her approach to the world accordingly.
One could be forgiven for suspecting that any investigation into the dour and lugubrious depths of the Presbyterian temperment might be an experience best avoided. However, Lawson writes with a wry, understated but imaginative humour that saves her story from any hint of “ponderosity.” In the emotionally spare environment that is the WASP inheritance, small gestures necessarily take on inflated significance, communications cat-like in their ability to convey mountains of meaning in the lift of an eyebrow, or the tilt of a head. Lawson understands this implicitly, and, in fact, puts it to good use in her prose, managing to examine dangerously deep subject material with a disarmingly light touch, and deceptively straightforward narrative.
A reader from a, shall we say, “freer” emotional background might find Kate’ journey of discovery trite and obvious, her apparent inability to just get on with it, exasperating, but this would only prove that said reader was not a WASP. Mary Lawson, in fact, places her finger quite precisely on the dilemma faced by any individual striving towards personal growth, burdened with a culture that canonizes abnegation. And, she manages to be amusing in the process. Her exposition of a Presbyterian’s extra commandments, most notably
#11: “Thou Shalt Not Emote,”
#12: “Thou Shalt Not Admit to Being Upset” and
#13 “When it becomes evident to the whole world that you are upset, Thou Shalt On No Account Explain Why,”
goes a long way in explaining Kate’s difficulties with personal relationships.
Lawson’s characterizations are one of the great delights of this book. From the mighty-bosomed Mrs. Stanovich of the endless hankies, who has taken it upon herself to emote for the entire community, the eternally bickering “Professors Crane,” the elderly Gaspe relatives who, possessing no vocabulary of emotion, are dumbstruck in their attempts to convey heartfelt condolences, to, perhaps most memorably, “Bo,” the wildly willful toddler, Lawson has populated her novel with a host of lovable, entertaining, and very familiar characters.
Consideration of characterization, however, brings up my one, somewhat backhanded criticism of the book. The young Matt and Bo are such extraordinary creations, such interesting, familiar and vibrant characters, that the reader, very quickly, becomes emotionally invested in their lives. A victim of her own success, Lawson has made you want to know how they turned out. Yet, the portrayals of Matt and Bo as adults are minimal, our sense of them sketchy. While this, no doubt, reflects Kate’s own attenuated understanding of their adult lives, it does nothing to satisfy the reader’s hard won curiosity.
Coming back to the question of just how a Presbyterian might be expected to embark on that perilous but oh-so-necessary voyage of adult self-discovery, readers will find they hold the answer in their hands. With courage, wit and perception of course — it’s all in the book!