My Huckleberry Friend:
The Way the Crow Flies
Here is an extraordinary book that at first seemed a million miles from the kind of thing that I find myself drawn to; yet it has turned out to be one of two books recently which are far outside my normal interests, yet have hooked me and made me not just give a lot of time to them, but in which I’ve unexpectedly found myself investing a lot emotionally.[The other is a book that I normally would avoid: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult, which hinges on the Holocaust. Yet it is hard to put it down.]
If that makes me sound like some weepy American lady about to do a review for the Oprah Book Club then it may be because Anne-Marie MacDonald’s first novel Fall on Your Knees was selected for that same thing. It’s funny, but I had always associated Oprah and her viewers with the twin curses of psychobabble and phoney sentiment; but if they can choose something with the depth and beauty of this second novel, The Way the Crow Flies, then in my snobbery I’ve obviously done them a disservice.
Yet perhaps a deeper look sees themes in it that in fact have always fascinated me. There is the corruption and indifference to the individual by governments. That is an obvious one. But I don’t think that I had thought before of how much I enjoy books that are told from the child’s point-of-view which to a large, though not exclusive, extent this one is.
I’ve always loved reading about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, right back to when I was a kid; and one of my favourite books to this day remains Ray Bradbury’s idealised vision of childhood in Dandelion Wine. Yet I don’t think it had struck me how many others I have read that were made for me because of the childhood theme. Much of Stephen King’s work would be included here; and in fact It would be damned near perfect if I could only get rid of the image of the twelve-year-olds’ gang-bang and, come to think of it, the whole last two hundred pages of that dammed thing.
And then there is To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, that one is always there, somehow. It is probably the one book that they forced us to read at school to which no one objected. And it is Scout in Harper Lee’s classic that Anne-Marie McDonald’s nine-year-old heroine Madeleine made me think of. She is a loving child and willing to please but not too willing that she comes across as some kind of angel.
In 1962 Madeleine’s family—her father and mother, Jack and Mimi and her big brother Mike—have just moved to Centralia, a Canadian Air Force Base, having spent the last few years in Germany. The first 130 or so pages where very little seems to happen are amongst my favourite in this remarkable work. We get to know a family that are basically conventional, are happy with their lot and determined to fit quietly into a world that they feel has been made safe after the War. If Jack is just a little complacent, a little smug in his cosy outlook on the world we can’t really fault him in that. He is the kind of man who believes what those in authority tell him, but he is kind and he loves his family a great deal. He knows how lucky he is.
Mimi at first seems like one of those wives from an early sixties commercial. In fact she even hides from Jack the fact that *gasp* she changes into old clothes whilst he’s at the office in order to do the housework. She sees it as her absolute duty to make sure that his home life is as relaxed as it can be. Yet she is not a doormat and is very much her own person.
Mike is idolised by his little sister, but even though he’s a good kid he has his own friends and doesn’t particularly want his little sister hanging around with them. So Madeleine finds herself gravitating towards Colleen, the tomboy daughter from the rough-and-ready but lovely family across the way. Madeleine is very much Tom Sawyer to Colleen’s Huckleberry Finn, a point that is made explicit more than once. The theme of the Pied Piper of Hamelin also runs like a fine thread through the tale, in particular the fate of the child who was left behind when the mountain was sealed up again.
But what the book has opened with, before we meet any of the characters, is of crows having a ‘bird’s-eye’ view of the murder of a child. MacDonald will intersperse what else the crows see in little snippets throughout the book; but the reader learns to be wary of this. After all, the crows are not in a position to interpret what they are looking at; and, ultimately, neither are we.
The title of the book is possibly ironic, because we get nowhere here in a direct route. Everything is teased through and it will take decades for some sort of conclusion to be reached. This is part of the majesty of The Way the Crow Flies; and I certainly have no regrets about the length of it. I feel as if I had a real look at how it must have been to live on an army base in a more innocent (?) age.
As much as I was in love with the first section of the book I almost put it aside when the theme of child molestation came into it; but it is done so subtly and is so absolutely crucial that even if you find this crime as utterly repellent as I do it is worth keeping going.
The background to all of it is the space race and President Kennedy’s determination to land a man on the moon before the end of the century. And because of this determination; because America will let nothing stop them; because they are willing to sweep the most appalling of crimes under the carpet in order to achieve their objective; because of this Jack finds himself as a pawn in an international game: a ‘game’ where the co-operation of a Nazi war criminal is more important than the lives of law-abiding citizens. He finds himself in a position where an innocent boy may have to go to prison in order to serve the ‘bigger picture’. He finds that the world isn’t as cosy or black-and-white as he had thought, nor that his moral code is as unshakeable as he had believed.
I’ll say no more on this outstanding novel. If you do approach it then please don’t do so as something to just scan through: this quality of writing deserves the full attention of the reader. Do that and you will be rewarded to an enormous degree.
The Way the Crow Flies
by Ann-Marie McDonald
Fourth Estate, 2003