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 Kate’s 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 Matt’s 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 Matt’s son’s 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 one’s 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.
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.
“Crow Lake is a remarkable novel, utterly gripping and yet highly literate. I read it in a single sitting, then I read it again, just for pleasure. I await her next work with eagerness (and a little envy).”
— Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat
“I didn’t read Crow Lake so much as I fell in love with it. This is one beautiful book.”
— David Macfarlane, author of Summer Gone
"A finely crafted debut ... conveys an astonishing intensity of emotion, almost Proustian in its sense of loss and regret."
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Beautifully written, carefully balanced, Mary Lawson constructs a history of sacrifice, emotional isolation and family love without sounding a false note.” -- Daily Mail (London)
“A lot of readers are going to surrender themselves to the magic of Crow Lake.”
— The Globe and Mail
“The best [first novel for 2002] that I have read so far…compulsively readable.”
— Sandra Martin, The Globe and Mail (Dec. 27, 2001)
“Crow Lake…is a spellbinding story…a marvelous story….The bitter land and climate of Northern Ontario are like characters in this story of four orphaned children struggling to stay together as a family….The language is subtle but beautiful. The reader is drawn into the lives of the characters…. The prospects for success are endless.”
—W.P. Kinsella, First Novels
“Crow Lake mesmerizes. … Crow Lake may be one of the loveliest novels you almost ever read.”
— The Telegram
“Crow Lake [is] superb, elegant…. Lawson is a brilliant storyteller; she takes her time in laying the foundation of her tale and layering on the complexities. She’s also an elegant stylist; her prose is lyrically thoughtful…. The depth, honesty and feeling throughout are superbly wrought. Crow Lake is a wondrous thing -- it’s a new Canadian classic.”
— The Hamilton Spectator
“The assurance with which Mary Lawson handles both reflection and violence makes her a writer to read and watch….. Peripheral portraits are skillfully drawn. Pot-banging Bo, with her minimal vocabulary of mostly shouted words, speaks to the heart without a scrap of sentimentality. The combative Cranes, unusual among fictional academics, are funny without being ridiculous and square off over the tablecloth with intelligence intact…. Most impressive are the nuanced and un-self-conscious zoological metaphors that thread through the text.”
— The New York Times
“Lawson delivers a potent combination of powerful character writing and gorgeous description of the land. Her sense of pace and timing is impeccable throughout, and she uses dangerous winter weather brilliantly to increase the tension as the family battles to survive. This is a vibrant, resonant novel by a talented writer whose lyrical evocative writing invites comparisons to Rick Bass and Richard Ford.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Beautifully written, carefully balanced, Mary Lawson constructs a history of sacrifice, emotional isolation and family love without sounding a false note or a showy sentence."
— Elizabeth Buchan, Daily Mail (UK)
“Crow Lake: deep, clear and teeming with life. A lot of readers are going to surrender themselves to the magic of Crow Lake...So have I. Within days, you'll see people reading Crow Lake in odd places as they take quick breaks from the business of their lives. You'll also hear people say, ‘I stayed up all night reading this book by Mary Lawson.’ Mary Lawson, Mary Lawson. Remember the name…. Kate Morrison’s voice overturns convention and makes everything fresher, larger, livelier than it first appears…. She is very special. So is Crow Lake…. This is the real thing.”
—Terry Rigelhof, The Globe and Mail
"Every detail in this beautifully written novel rings true, the characters so solid we almost feel their flesh. Bo must be one of the most vividly realized infants in recent literature. Lawson creates a community without ever giving in to the Leacockian impulse to poke fun at small-town ways, instead showing respect to lives shaped by hard work and starved for physical comfort. The adult Kate’s alienation from Crow Lake is initially difficult to accept, for everything in Kate’s life, including her career in science, reflects the values of her formative years on the farm. Soon, though, her crippling guilt becomes the mystery that draws the reader on."
— Maureen Garvie, Quill & Quire starred review
“Lawson's narrative flows effortlessly in ever-increasing circles, swirling impressions in the reader's mind until form takes shape and the reader is left to reflect on the whole. Crow Lake is a wonderful achievement that will ripple in and out the reader's consciousness long after the last page is turned.”
“Critics are raving about…Crow Lake, a tightly plotted page-turner about sibling love, murder, and invertebrate zoology in rural Ontario, set in the 1950s and ‘60s."
— Judy Stoffman, The Toronto Star
"Lawson achieves a breathless anticipatory quality in her surprisingly adept first novel, in which a child tells the story, but tells it very well indeed.”
— Danise Hoover, Booklist