Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural “badlands” of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur—offstage.
Centerstage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protegee, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world.
In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one’s expectations right to the very end. Tragic, funny, unforgettable, Crow Lake is a quiet tour de force that will catapult Mary Lawson to the forefront of fiction writers today.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My great-grandmother Morrison fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning, or so the story goes. And one Saturday evening she became so absorbed in her book that when she looked up, she found that it was half past midnight and she had spun for half an hour on the Sabbath day. Back then, that counted as a major sin.
I’m not recounting that little bit of family lore just for the sake of it. I’ve come to the conclusion recently that Great-Grandmother and her book rest have a lot to answer for. She’d been dead for decades by the time the events occurred that devastated our family and put an end to our dreams, but that doesn’t mean she had no influence over the final outcome. What took place between Matt and me can’t be explained without reference to Great-Grandmother. It’s only fair that some of the blame should be laid at her door.
There was a picture of her in my parents’ room while I was growing up. I used to stand in front of it, as a very small child, daring myself to meet her eyes. She was small, tight-lipped, and straight, dressed in black with a white lace collar (scrubbed ruthlessly, no doubt, every single evening and ironed before dawn each day). She looked severe, disapproving, and entirely without humor. And well she might; she had fourteen children in thirteen years and five hundred acres of barren farmland on the Gaspe Peninsula. How she found time to spin, let alone read, I’ll never know.
Of the four of us, Luke, Matt, Bo, and I, Matt was the only one who resembled her at all. He was far from grim, but he had the same straight mouth and steady gray eyes. If I fidgeted in church and got a sharp glance from my mother, I would peer sideways up at Matt to see if he had noticed. And he always had, and looked severe, and then at the last possible moment, just as I was beginning to despair, he would wink.
Matt was ten years older than I, tall and serious and clever. His great passion was the ponds, a mile or two away across the railroad tracks. They were old gravel pits, abandoned years ago after the road was built, and filled by nature with all manner of marvelous wriggling creatures. When Matt first started taking me back to the ponds I was so small he had to carry me on his shoulders through the woods with their luxuriant growth of poison ivy, along the tracks, past the dusty boxcars lined up to receive their loads of sugar beets, down the steep sandy path to the ponds themselves. There we would lie on our bellies while the sun beat down on our backs, gazing into the dark water, waiting to see what we would see.
There is no image of my childhood that I carry with me more clearly than that; a boy of perhaps fifteen or sixteen, fair-haired and lanky; beside him a little girl, fairer still, her hair drawn back in braids, her thin legs burning brown in the sun. They are both lying perfectly still, chins resting on the backs of their hands. He is showing her things. Or rather, things are drifting out from under rocks and shadows and showing themselves, and he is telling her about them.
“Just move your finger, Kate. Waggle it in the water. He’ll come over. He can’t resist.”
Cautiously the little girl waggles her finger; cautiously a small snapping turtle slides over to investigate.
“See? They’re very curious when they’re young. When he gets older, though, he’ll be suspicious and bad-tempered.”
The old snapper they had trapped out on land once had looked sleepy rather than suspicious. He’d had a wrinkled, rubbery head, and she had wanted to pat it. Matt held out a branch as thick as his thumb and the snapper chopped it in two.
“Their shells are small for the size of their bodies, smaller than most turtles, so a lot of their skin is exposed. It makes them nervous.”
The little girl nods, and the ends of her braids bob up and down in the water, making tiny ripples which tremble out across the surface of the pond. She is completely absorbed.
Hundreds of hours, we must have spent that way over the years. I came to know the tadpoles of the leopard frogs, the fat gray tadpoles of the bullfrogs, the tiny black wriggling ones of toads. I knew the turtles and the catfish, the water striders and the newts, the whirligigs spinning hysterically over the surface of the water. Hundreds of hours, while the seasons changed and the pond life died and renewed itself many times, and I grew too big to ride on Matt’s shoulders and instead picked my way through the woods behind him. I was unaware of these changes of course, they happened so gradually, and children have very little concept of time. Tomorrow is forever, and years pass in no time at all.
When the end came, it seemed to do so completely out of the blue, and it wasn’t until long afterward that I was able to see that there was a chain of events leading up to it. Some of those events had nothing to do with us, the Morrisons, but were solely the concern of the Pyes, who lived on a farm about a mile away and were our nearest neighbors. The Pyes were what you’d call a problem family, always had been, always would be, but that year, within the privacy of their big old gray-painted farmhouse, offstage as far as the rest of the community was concerned, their problems were developing into a full-scale nightmare. The other thing we didn’t know was that the Pye nightmare was destined to become entangled with the Morrison dream. Nobody could have predicted that.
There’s no end to how far back you can go, of course, when you’re trying to figure out where something started. The search can take you back to Adam and beyond. But for our family there was an event that summer catastrophic enough to be the start of practically anything. It took place on a hot, still Saturday in July when I was seven years old, and brought normal family life to an end; even now, almost twenty years later, I find it hard to get any sort of perspective on it.
The only positive thing you can say about it is that at least everything ended on a high note, because the previous day, our last day together as a family, my parents had learned that Luke, my “other” brother, other than Matt, had passed his senior matriculation and won a place at teachers college. Luke’s success was something of a surprise because, to put it mildly, he was not a scholar. I remember reading somewhere a theory to the effect that each member of a family has a role, ”the clever one,” “the pretty one,” “the selfish one.” Once you’ve been established in the role for a while, you’re stuck with it, no matter what you do, people will still see you as whatever-it-was, but in the early stages, according to the theory, you have some choice as to what your role will be. If that’s the case, then early on in life Luke must have decided that what he really wanted to be was “the problem one.” I don’t know what influenced his choice, but it’s possible that he’d heard the story of Great-Grandmother and her famous book rest once too often. That story must have been the bane of Luke’s life. Or one of the banes, the other would have been having Matt as a brother. Matt was so obviously Great-Grandmother’s true intellectual heir that there was no point in Luke even trying. Better, then, to find what he was naturally good at, raising our parents’ blood pressure, say, and practice, practice, practice.
But somehow, in spite of himself, here he was at the age of nineteen having passed his exams. After three generations of striving, a member of the Morrison family was about to go on to higher education.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake. We hope they will enrich your experience of this brilliant novel.
1. Kate says that “understatement was the rule in our house. Emotions, even positive ones, were kept firmly under control.” How would you say that this “rule” affected each member of the Morrison family? How did it influence their relationships with each other and with people outside their family? What are some examples?
2. For the first few weeks following the death of her parents, Kate believes that she was “protected from the reality by disbelief.” How did she carry this defense mechanism with her throughout her childhood and into adulthood? What are some examples?
3. How do you imagine things would have turned out if the children had been separated, as Aunt Annie had arranged? How do you think it would have benefited and/or impeded their growth as individuals and as a family?
4. Guilt is an ongoing theme throughout the book. How did this feeling affect the children’s relationships and the choices they made immediately following the death of their parents? How did it affect their adult lives? Who would you say was most stricken with this feeling?
5. Why do you suppose Kate and Matt were bonded together so strongly? What about Bo and Luke?
6. When you think of a conventional family, stereotypical images come to mind. How does each of the four Morrison children fit in that image? Which child took on which traditional family role? What are some examples?
7. Given the chance to attend university, what choices do you think Matt would have made? Do you think he would have returned to Crow Lake? Why or why not?
8. Matt sees problems clearly and is realistic about solving them, whereas Luke is content to wait for things to work themselves out. Given the situation they were in, what were the advantages and disadvantages of each frame of thinking?
9. Great-grandmother Morrison’s love of learning set the standard against which Kate judged everyone around her. Do you think Great-grandmother Morrison would have approved of Kate’s disappointment in Matt? Why?
10. The Crow Lake community opened its arms wide to the Morrison children after their parents were killed. How does this generosity conflict with the community’s collective reaction to Laurie Pye’s disappearance? Why is this?
11. Miss Vernon’s stories about the history of Crow Lake suggest that some patterns can never be broken. How is this true and/or false for the Pyes and Morrisons?
12. What do the ponds symbolize in this book? What do they represent to Kate and Matt especially?
13. Was Matt doomed to let Kate down in some way? Do you think it’s possible for any young man to live up to such heroic expectations? Why?
14. What do you imagine happens between Kate and Daniel after the book ends?
15. Do you think Kate’s resentment and distaste toward Marie will lessen as she rebuilds her relationship with Matt?
16. What could Kate learn from Matt to make herself a better teacher? Do you think she will enjoy teaching more when she returns from Simon’s birthday party?
17. We are meant to assume that Luke and Miss Carrington develop a romantic relationship at the end of the book. Do you think they are compatible? Why or why not? What are some examples?
18. Kate and Mrs. Stanovich are complete opposites when it comes to dealing with tragedy and hardship. What do you think each woman could learn from the other?
19. Daniel believes that Kate is incapable of empathy. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
20. What do you think would have become of Luke had his parents not been killed?
21. As a consequence of the events of her childhood, Kate is a rather judgmental, withdrawn young woman. Nevertheless, Daniel falls in love with her. What do you think he sees in her, under her protective shell?