In the category of books everyone should read are three by one of my favourite Canadian authors, Mary Lawson. All three are set in northeastern Ontario where I lived for years. Anyone who hasn’t yet discovered her has three wonderful 5-Star books to read. Below are plot summaries of Crow Lake (2002) and The Other Side of the Bridge (2006) and my review of her most recent novel, Road Ends (2013).
This novel is set in 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.
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 protégé, 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.
This is a universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harboured and driven underground.
The Other Side of the Bridge
Two brothers, Arthur and Jake Dunn, are the sons of a farmer in the mid-1930s, when life is tough and another world war is looming. Arthur is reticent, solid, dutiful and set to inherit the farm and his father’s character; Jake is younger, attractive, mercurial and dangerous to know – the family misfit. When a beautiful young woman comes into the community, the fragile balance of sibling rivalry tips over the edge.
Then there is Ian, the family’s next generation, and far too sure he knows the difference between right and wrong. By now it is the fifties, and the world has changed – a little, but not enough.
These two generations in the small town of Struan, Ontario, are tragically interlocked, linked by fate and community but separated by a war which devours its young men – its unimaginable horror reaching right into the heart of this remote corner of an empire.
Review of Road Ends
Mary Lawson’s third novel focuses on the Cartwright family: parents and eight children. It is narrated from three perspectives: Edward, the father; Tom, the eldest son; and Megan, the only daughter. Edward, the town’s bank manager, hides in his study reading about cities he dreams of visiting and ignoring the family that is disintegrating around him. Tom, in the depths of a guilt-ridden depression because of the death of a friend, has abandoned his career as an aeronautical engineer and seeks only solitude. Megan, after looking after the family for 15 years, escapes to England.
Each of the three protagonists has a conflict between duty and dreams. Edward is in a marriage which has brought him children he did not want; he wants to see the world but has to remain an armchair traveler. Unfortunately, because he isolates himself in his study, his children flounder, especially since his wife/their mother is increasingly unfocused and forgetful. Tom had dreams but an unexpected death derails him and now he wants only peace which becomes more difficult to find in the chaos that overtakes the family. Megan wants to start her own life after years of taking responsibility for the family and succeeds in making her way in London, but her family is never far from her thoughts. It is a conflict experienced by many: wanting, because of love and a sense of duty, to do the right thing and wanting, with a great sense of guilt, to escape the sacrifices required by that love and duty: “How are you supposed to stop loving someone you love” (231)? One of the characters comments, “Love was not an idea; you couldn’t choose to get it or not get it any more than you could choose to catch or not catch flu” (268).
One of the strengths of the novel is characterization. All of the protagonists are flawed. At times they become oblivious to the needs of others because they are driven by concerns of their own. For Megan, “leaving home, living her own life, that mattered” (16). For Tom, peace is paramount: “This was exactly what he’d been afraid of, the way one thing led to another, the way you got sucked into things, the way your painstakingly, designed routine . . . all in solitude, solitude above all, could be shot to hell and you’d be in it up to your neck, you’d have no control over anything, there’d be no end to it, no peace, and he couldn’t handle it, he just couldn’t handle it” (43 – 44). Edward retreats to his study and its books because he wants to broaden his “very narrow life” (192).
Nonetheless, none of the three is totally heartless. Megan may seem selfish at times, but she looked after her family for 15 years - even her father acknowledges, “’I dare say you’ve earned [your freedom]’” (16) – and her family is never far from her mind. Tom wants no one “making any demands on him” (151), but he is unable to disregard the distress of his brother Adam. Even the self-absorbed Edward is humanized when the reader comes to understand that he has struggles of his own and that he is capable of compassion and forgiveness. This detailed and realistic portrayal of characters cannot but draw in the reader.
I lived in the part of northeastern Ontario in which Lawson has set all her novels, and I can attest to the fact that her descriptions are accurate. A review in the National Post stated it perfectly: “[Lawson] can justifiably lay claim to an oeuvre as well as a personal geography. If the part of Ontario west of Toronto is [Alice] Munro country, then the area northwest of New Liskeard and Cobalt — where her fictional towns of Struan and Crow Lake are roughly located — may well end up being dubbed Lawson Country.”
As the title Road Ends suggests, a sadness permeates the book and, indeed, more than one character faces grief and loss, but that does not mean there is no hope offered. Again, more than one character comes to realize that one road may end but there is another that can be taken.
I loved Lawson previous books, Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, and I loved this one as well. I found myself totally enthralled. It is a beautifully written story of duty, sacrifice and family love which will remain with the reader for a long time.