The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Bombshells drop on cosy Canada

After Canada's refusal to enter the second Gulf War, the Eastern seaboard power outtage for which it was blamed, and the Sars catastrophe last spring, relations with the US hit an all-time low. If Canadians are apt to hark back to a golden age of the "special relationship" during the Cold War, when the two countries seemed to be fighting a common enemy, Ann-Marie MacDonald puts paid to such tosh. Her ambitious novel The Way the Crow Flies explores, through a French-Canadian family, the compromises Canada was forced to make during the Cuban missile crisis, and their chilling reverberations.

Set in 1962 on a Canadian forces station in southern Ontario, the novel follows the efforts of Madeline McCarthy, fresh from a base in Germany, to settle in as the new kid at school. The children are taught to protect themselves from nuclear fall-out by learning to "duck and cover", while Madeline's Acadian mother, Mimi, works to make a home. Her father, Wing Commander Jack McCarthy, is secretly drawn into a US intelligence operation which will force an unbearable moral dilemma on him. On the surface, the family is multi-cultural, liberal and proud.

MacDonald evokes both the period's aching innocence and its trace of menace. (As a product of a 1960s Canadian childhood, I can testify to her sharp feel for that time.) Children play on car-free streets which back onto limitless fields, television is broadcast a handful of hours every day, and mothers never stray far from their kitchens. But these unworldly, cookie-baking, stay-at-home mothers are unaware of the dangers that can, and will, befall their children.

Soon Madeline is being asked to stay after school to perform "exercises" with her teacher, the odious Mr March. Her parents are oblivious to the invitation's meaning. The exercises descend into a ritual of sexual abuse and, although several girls are involved, no one has the language to describe what is happening to them. The most needy become willing victims. Even when one of these "special" girls is murdered, March's crimes go unpunished.

There is a parallel between what Madeline perceives as her corrupted innocence and that of her father. As the missile crisis looms, Jack is given the job of resettling a German defector from the Soviet Union, with instructions from a British military aide (read spy) based in Washington. It slowly becomes apparent that the German scientist, who worked with Werner von Braun on V2 rockets, has a dubious past overlooked for political expediency.

Jack's disillusionment with his work, when he realises he has been used to expedite the US space programme, coincides with Madeline's realisation that, even within the family, she is not protected. This is the psychic wound she carries into adulthood and which, ironically, becomes the source of her genius as a comedian in Toronto. Her father, however, is destroyed by his experience. Even though the novel feels over-long at points, MacDonald manages this narrative arc with consummate skill and devastating emotional impact.

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