by Ann-Marie MacDonald
(originally posted 16-June-2014)
**This review DOES contain spoilers – read at your own risk**
Originally written as an essay for Modern Fiction.
The Way the Crow Flies begins with a military family moving from Germany to their newhome on a Royal Canadian Air Force Base in Centralia, Ontario, Canada. The time is 1962. World War II has ended and the Cold War has begun.
The McCarthy family – Jack, Mimi, Mike and Madeleine – are our central characters. The story is told from all the family members’ points-of-view, however, the prime focus of the story is on Madeleine and Jack. Madeleine is an 8 year old girl about to go into Grade 4. The family has been based all over the globe, however Mimi has requested a post back in Canada so she can be near her family. Canada has not yet been deemed its own country; it is still considered a dominion of Britain and carries an ensign flag rather than its own. Centralia, located near London, Ontario, housed one of the largest
RCAF training stations in Canada at this time.
Jack and Mimi are both of Canadian birth – Jack is an English Canadian, and Mimi, originally Marguerite, is of Acadian descent. Acadians are French-Canadians, French settlers to the eastern provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, as well as Quebec. While Mimi does speak French, it is not true French, but a colloquial speech pattern native to the Acadians. Jack does not speak French,
Madeleine speaks “un petit” and Mike can carry on a conversation in full French with his mother. We get the impression from the very start that Mike is Mimi’s favorite. “Between a mother’s eyes and her son’s face there is not air. There is something invisible and invincible.” Jack and Madeleine seem to share a more special relationship than Jack and Mike do.
The characters in The Way the Crow Flies are vivid and substantial. There is such a sense of realism to the characters, you almost feel as though they are in the room with you. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s writing flows beautifully and almost lyrically through the story. “Pictures, even scary ones, can be reassuring because they are narratively complete, unlike memory, which lies around, some assembly required.”
This novel examines many important themes – sexual abuse, murder, homosexuality, adultery, bullying, espionage, the Holocaust. It is quite amazing that all this could be wrapped up in one book. The manner in which MacDonald deals with these touchy subjects is exemplary. While stark and realistic in tone, it is not offensive unless intended to offend or shock. However, as a half-American/half-Canadian, I sometimes was displeased by the negative reactions and statements regarding Americans.
The story itself is harrowing. While this is absolutely a “can’t put it down” novel (I read it in 3 days,) there are times you want to cover your eyes because it’s almost too much to absorb. Seeing Madeleine endure abuse at the hands of her Grade 4 teacher is gutwrenching. “Do you know what will happen if your parents find out what a bad child you’ve been?” Mr. March says to her, ensuring her silence. When Madeleine is ashamed to tell what has happened, there is a feeling of need to shake her, beg her or one of the other girls to reveal their secret. Knowing that she isn’t the only one abused makes one wonder how many other abused girls there were prior, and how many lives damaged by the senseless acts of this teacher. The murder of a child, at what you initially believe is the hands of the abuser, is heartbreaking. More so when the true murderer and situation is revealed. There were many times during this novel that I would catch myself holding my breath, praying for nothing worse to come.
One of the interesting lines of this story is Jack’s. His failure to become a pilot because of an injury during his training leads him to a desk job where he ultimately meets Mimi. Theirs is a true love story. The setting is still pre-feminism, and Mimi exemplifies the traditional woman, right down to her girdle. Jack adores her, and when confronted with having to keep secrets from her, he struggles. Poor Jack. He feels he is doing his country such a service by operating in what he thinks is a military intelligence operation, yet all along there is a nagging sense that something is amiss. “He doesn’t know what to do. He only knows what he has done.” You watch Jack see, but not see, what is really going on in his world.
Throughout the book are small sections that carry the storyline, but are not part of the narrative. These are clues of what is to come and help piece together the various commentaries by the characters. By inserting these compelling mini-chapters, it keeps the book tied together and helps to define for us certain parts of the story. This book is so well-written and brought full circle at the end, which is two decades plus in the future. Nothing is worse than loose ends in a book, but MacDonald achieves closure beautifully. While I didn’t want the story to end, I was happy that I knew what happened to most of the characters. I enjoyed the progression and maturation process through the book for Madeleine. Seeing her fulfill her dreams and achieve a sense of peace about the abuse she endured, and ultimately being able to free a persecuted soul, makes the journey worthwhile.
(all quotes are taken from the novel.)