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Way the Crow Flies

Way the Crow Flies - Ann-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies follows the arc of classical comedy, though there’s very little funny about this novel. The first third presents an idyllic pastoral, a precious if insular community where fathers are good, mothers are beautiful, and children are safe. But the seeds of tragedy lurk among the flowers, and the middle section presents a nightmare that culminates in one child’s murder, another child’s victimization in a travesty of justice, and a father's terrible dilemma as he tries to reconcile two values that threaten each other. The last section, the part that makes the novel a comedy, is about redemption and restoration, and the healing power of truth. Though the redemption is attenuated and incomplete, and some important wrongs cannot be set right, the conclusion is still an affirmation of the values nurtured in the first part of the novel.For me, it is the first third that is most evocative. The Way the Crow Flies opens with the McCarthy family--father Jack, mother Mimi, twelve-year-old Mike, and nine-year-old- Madeleine--driving across Ontario to their new home, the Centralia Air Force Base outside London. Though this is the Canadian Air Force in 1962, MacDonald’s setting could have been my own childhood on U.S. Army bases ten years later. The new quarters freshly scrubbed of all traces of the last inhabitants, the wonderful anticipation of the moving van full of things that were kept in storage during an overseas posting, the fast and intense friendships formed by children and parents alike: these are parts of the “Army brat” experience so deeply instilled that we hardly think of them at all. MacDonald captures perfectly the odd tics of military culture (”max nix” is the military family shibboleth; whether you were stationed in Germany or not, you know this pidgin phrase), and the rootlessness that leads to nostalgia for people rather than place.The strange contradiction of military life is the dark foreboding that hides beneath the security. On the one hand, at least in 1962's Centralia (and 1978’s Fort Leavenworth or 1981’s Wurzburg), safety and certainty can be taken for granted. The military base is a closed society with armed guards at every entrance; most mothers do not work outside the home, so there are always a hundred eyes on the street; and the temporariness of the quarters lends itself to an almost communal disregard for property, with everyone welcome in everyone's yard. There are no strangers on base.But beneath this idyll is the knowledge that the whole enterprise rests on violence. In Centralia in 1962, there’s plenty to fear: the Cuban Missile Crisis strips away the veneer of peace, and the air raid sirens remind the complacent Centralians that they exist only because the world is a dangerous place. Jack is himself playing a part in a dangerous game, helping his old flight instructor Simon care for a rocket scientist, who may be a Nazi war criminal, until the scientist can be snuck over the border to the U.S. space program. More personal violence exists as well at Centralia, in the form of the pedophile teacher Mr. March who plays on the prim-and-proper ethos of the Air Force world to prey upon a group of girls who include Madeleine and Claire McCarroll, an American girl who is at Centralia in part because of Simon’s clandestine activities. Commissions and omissions intersect in a tangled web at Easter, leaving Claire horribly dead and Ricky Froelich, the boy everyone loves, accused of the crime.Twenty years later, Madeleine is a successful comedian, part of the “Canadian invasion”, poised to make her big breakthrough. But she is also scarred and troubled, and begins therapy when she suffers panic attacks. Over the course of her therapy, she begins to see the tangle of lies that led to Claire’s murder, and tries to set things right. Too much time has passed, though: Mr. March is dead, Ricky has been paroled under a new identity, her father is near death, and her Centralia friends scattered at the end of the events of 1963. But though some mysteries are left unsolved and some crimes remain unpunished, Madeleine repairs what she can and finds peace with the rest.The novel's last section feels like an extended postscript rather than natural continuation of the story, and is by far the weakest section. Some of the threads, particularly in the last chapter, are tied up a bit too easily, and though there is a terrible twist that exonerates Mr. March (while implicating him on a deeper, darker level), even that seems somewhat gratuitous. It would almost have been a better novel if it had ended at Ricky’s trial, leaving only dark hints of the truth. But the redemption is still satisfying, particularly Madeleine's reconciliation with Mimi and Jack's final admission of his role in the events (though he is spared the full brunt of the horrors of that long-ago spring).Despite its flaws, though, The Way the Crow Flies is a powerful novel. MacDonald recreates a lost time and place and makes it real through the thoughts and actions of compelling characters. The novel creates a very tactile and haunting world, and its rich language and tight control of setting and plot masterfully marries the pastoral with the thriller; it's a dense and remarkable novel, both difficult and enjoyable, and is sure to color the reader’s perspective long after the last page is turned.