Ann-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies is not a horror novel, but it certainly covered some horrific ground. Did I mention I also enjoy reading bildungsroman novels, especially ones that are fabulously written?
MacDonald’s second novel (after Fall on Your Knees) follows the life of eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy, the daughter of Jack McCarthy, a high-ranking officer at the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Centralia, Ontario, Canada in the early sixties. Newly arrived after a long stint in Germany (where Madeleine was born), the family quickly adapts to life in a new part of the world, at least for Madeleine. Everything is off to a roaring start until she experiences unexpected trouble at school in the form of her abusive teacher Mr. March, who chooses a handful of girls to remain a few minutes after school for his personal pleasure, of which Madeleine is one. Tough subject matter to address in and of itself, but the bleakness level shifts into overdrive after Claire, an American classmate whose dad is stationed at the base for reasons known only to Madeleine’s father, is raped and murdered off-base and a beloved teenage neighbor, Ricky Froelich, becomes the state’s prime suspect, an easy scapegoat when the local authorities want to close this horrendous case quickly, and do so with the help of two of Madeleine’s classmates . . . who also happen to be members of the “after-three” club.
Is that dark enough for you? No? Well then, toss in the fact that the reason Claire’s father is stationed at the base is to smuggle a Nazi war criminal into the United States to serve as an assistant to Wernher von Braun as part of America’s plan to make sure it gets to the moon before those pesky Commies do, and that Madeleine’s father is a willing participant in this scheme, and that the teenager is the adopted son of Henry Froelich, a Jewish man who happened to be a prisoner at Mittelbau-Dora and knew the Nazi scientist who Jack secretly has holed up in a nearby town, only waiting for his order to brief Claire’s father and get the Nazi packing to the US. Jack also happens to be an important witness who could potentially vindicate Ricky’s innocence, but in doing so he would have to blow open the secret mission his own government has him participating in. Wait, even more issues come steadily down the pike with each new chapter, such as the fact that Madeleine is dealing with her burgeoning homosexuality, and her beloved older brother Mike is later sent to Vietnam. And, and . . .
If this plot seems over-complicated and a little too ‘just so’ to swallow, perhaps, but it should be noted that all of its various components were born from real-life events. Madeleine’s life is in part autobiographical, and the main plot point, the murder of Claire McCarroll, is based on the case of Steven Truscott. Of course, the Nazi war criminal being smuggled into Canada, and then into the US, is also modeled on historical precedent, namely Operation Paperclip. May be all of these events converging is one of those one-in-a-million things that sometimes do happen. It’s still pushing it, though MacDonald’s writing is so natural and self-assured that nothing ever feels forced, and the characters are sufficiently well-drawn that their respective motivations are perfectly understandable. Thus, it all feels too much like destiny about mid way through, a depressing conclusion indeed. Yet, somehow, amidst this carefully constructed fatalism, just when you think you have everything worked out and know how the story will end, the final piece is dropped into place, and it’s more shocking than you could ever have imagined.
The Way the Crow Flies, published in 2003, was a well-deserving contender for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Lambda Literary Award, though it ultimately won neither. That’s unfortunate. It’s a beautifully written novel that bounces back and forth between the two major p.o.v. characters, Madeleine and Jack, and spans around thirty years, as the adult Madeleine deals with the fallout from her own childhood abuse as well as watching a dear friend get sent up the river for crimes she knows he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, Jack’s big secret and the guilt that results from it is taking a toll on his health, which in turn is adding more stress to Madeleine’s life, and on it goes, until things finally come to a head and both Jack and Madeleine are forced to deal with their past. MacDonald perfectly captures the tone and details of life on a Canadian air force base in 1963, and weaves the various strands of her intricate and involving tale in such a way that they feel consistent and complimentary, which by all rights they shouldn’t.
That said, the novel is not without its flaws. Mr. March, the pedophile teacher, is perhaps too clichéd and one-dimensional to be perfectly believable. There’s also the matter of conflating homosexuality with being sexually abused, and though the novel goes out of its way to disassociate the two, it ultimately reinforces the stereotype by putting the central protagonist in both categories. The story would’ve been better served by not adding this additional wrinkle to an already complicated plot. And then there’s what becomes of Madeleine’s brother Mike, which does feel gratuitous. With all the stuff Madeleine goes through, it’s understandable that she’s a mess. In fact, it’s fairly startling that she isn’t more messed up than she is.
But these are fairly minor problems in the scheme of things. For the most part Madeleine McCarthy is that rarest of literary treasures, a believable child character, and a charming one at that. Part of her ability to cope comes down to the fact that she’s always been a natural comedian even as a little girl. Indeed, she will eventually choose to go into comedy as a career. In line with that aspect of her personality, one of the things that makes eight-year-old Madeleine such a lovable and well-rounded child character is her tendency to constantly mimic her favorite Warner Brothers cartoons. This is so exceedingly spot on that I wish I’d thought of it. And the story itself is a murder mystery of the most fascinating kind: one that is viewed through the eyes of a protagonist who isn’t particularly interested in solving it, while the investigating cops here are more like antiheroes, as they just want the case resolved quickly and efficiently at the expense of good police work, resulting in a clear miscarriage of justice. With respect to the guilt or innocence of Steven Truscott, the model for Ricky Froelich in the book, I’d say it’s pretty clear where Ms. MacDonald comes down. Having now read some of the details of the Truscott case myself, I’m still on the fence, though leaning in the direction of innocence.
But one thing is perfectly clear to me: MacDonald needs to keep writing. She not only manages to address issues like sexual abuse and moral panic in a sensitive and compelling way, she shines a light on one of the darker chapters of the space race and the development of the Saturn V rocket. The ghastly twist ending is just icing on the cake.