Crow Lake

A Novel

Crow Lake book cover
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Crow Lake is that rare find, a first novel so quietly assured, so emotionally pitch perfect, you know from the opening page that this is the real thing—a literary experience in which to lose yourself, by an author of immense talent.

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.

Praise for Crow Lake

“A finely crafted debut . . . conveys an astonishing intensity of emotion, almost Proustian in its sense of loss and regret.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“The assurance with which Mary Lawson handles both reflection and violence makes her a writer to read and watch. . . . [Crow Lake] has a resonance at once witty and poignant.”—The New York Times Book Review

Crow Lake is the kind of book that keeps you reading well past midnight; you grieve when it’s over. Then you start pressing it on friends.”—The Washington Post Book World

“A touching meditation on the power of loyalty and loss, on the ways in which we pay our debts and settle old scores, and on what it means to love, to accept, to succeed—and to negotiate fate’s obstacle courses.”—People

“Lawson’s tight focus on the emotional and moral effects of a drastic turn of events on a small human group has its closest contemporary analogue in the novels of Ian McEwan.”—The Toronto Star


“A finely crafted debut . . . conveys an astonishing intensity of emotion, almost Proustian in its sense of loss and regret.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“The assurance with which Mary Lawson handles both reflection and violence makes her a writer to read and watch. . . . [Crow Lake] has a resonance at once witty and poignant.”—The New York Times Book Review

Crow Lake is the kind of book that keeps you reading well past midnight; you grieve when it’s over. Then you start pressing it on friends.”—The Washington Post Book World

“A touching meditation on the power of loyalty and loss, on the ways in which we pay our debts and settle old scores, and on what it means to love, to accept, to succeed—and to negotiate fate’s obstacle courses.”—People

“Lawson’s tight focus on the emotional and moral effects of a drastic turn of events on a small human group has its closest contemporary analogue in the novels of Ian McEwan.”—The Toronto Star



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.

Im not recounting that little bit of family lore just for the sake of it. Ive come to the conclusion recently that Great-Grandmother and her book rest have a lot to answer for. Shed been dead for decades by the time the events occurred that devastated our family and put an end to our dreams, but that doesnt mean she had no influence over the final outcome. What took place between Matt and me cant be explained without reference to Great-Grandmother. Its 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 Gaspé Peninsula. How she found time to spin, let alone read, Ill 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. Hell come over. He cant resist.

Cautiously the little girl waggles her finger; cautiously a small snapping turtle slides over to investigate.

See? Theyre very curious when theyre young. When he gets older, though, hell be suspicious and bad-tempered.


The old snapper they had trapped out on land once had looked sleepy rather than suspicious. Hed 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 Matts 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 wasnt 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 youd 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 didnt know was that the Pye nightmare was destined to become entangled with the Morrison dream. Nobody could have predicted that.

Theres no end to how far back you can go, of course, when youre 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. Lukes 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 youve been established in the role for a while, youre 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 thats the case, then early on in life Luke must have decided that what he really wanted to be was the problem one. I dont know what influenced his choice, but its possible that hed heard the story of Great-Grandmother and her famous book rest once too often. That story must have been the bane of Lukes life. Or one of the banes, the other would have been having Matt as a brother. Matt was so obviously Great-Grandmothers 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.

Reader's Guide

1. In the Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the father are visited on the sons, and hideous events occur. How do their tragedies compare to those of the Morrison family?

2. Reviewers have noted that Lawson “writes with the precisely heightened sort of realism that comes from a long look back toward home.” To what extent does her description of the landscape of this small community of Crow Lake heighten the power of the story?

3. Faith in education (and the often concurrent withdrawal from ties with the land) can be seen as a fundamental element of the Canadian psyche. How does Crow Lake explore the dual needs of the mind and the heart, and how fulfilled are the main characters in each respect?

From the Hardcover edition.

Q & A

By Mary Lawson

Q. What inspired you to write this novel?

A. The honest answer is, I don’t know. The novel came from a short story, and the short story came from a single sentence, which came into my mind one morning without explanation and out of nowhere. It was, ‘My great grandmother fixed a book-rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning.’

This was true – fact not fiction – though I still have no idea why I suddenly thought of it. My mother had mentioned our great grandmother often when we were children, but that was a long time ago and I hadn’t given her a thought for years.

There was quite a gap between the short story and the novel, and during that time both of my parents died and my children flew the nest. I spent even more time than usual, then, thinking about issues of family, home and childhood, and I have no doubt that that had an influence on the novel.

Q. Do you see Kate’s character as being autobiographical to a certain extent and if so, in what ways?

A. If you’d asked if the story was autobiographical – no. Virtually nothing that takes place in the novel happened in my life. But you asked about Kate’s character, which is harder to answer.

She is much more serious than I, but circumstances have made her so. She has been damaged by loss, and the damage has made her rather self-righteous and judgmental – I hope I am not quite as hard on other people as she is. Having said that, I do share some of her prejudices; the work ethic is strong in both of us; I expect a lot of myself and of those around me; I am not by nature tolerant, easygoing or laissez-faire. But fear of further loss has caused Kate to limit her world. Academic study is safe, it cannot betray her; love, on the other hand, would make her vulnerable again. So she keeps the barriers up, to protect herself. Life has been much kinder to me than it was to her.

As for other similarities; I have two older brothers, whom I adored as a child (still do), so I have shared with Kate the experience of hero worship. I also have a younger sister, whose infant self was the model for Bo. (She is the only character based on a ‘real’ person, apart from Great Grandmother.) Family is tremendously important to Kate, and it is to me.

Q. ‘Setting too much store by education can be a subtly dangerous thing’. Do you agree and if so, why?

I think setting too much store by any ideal, however admirable, can be dangerous. It can take over; it can damage your sense of proportion and blind you to other things.

Q. Why did you choose Northern Ontario as the background for this novel? How much did you draw on your own childhood experiences?

A.I grew up in Southern Ontario, but my family spent a lot of time in the North, and it is the North I think of when I think of home.

The community I grew up in was larger than Crow Lake, less isolated, much less homogeneous, and less remote, but it was isolated enough that people depended on each other, and took care of each other. There is a downside to small communities of course – they are hell on earth for those who don’t fit in – but I remember it with affection, and Crow Lake is in some respects a tribute to it.

Small incidents in the book did take place in reality – people regularly go through the ice out on the lake, for instance, and the winter storms I’ve described are drawn from life. The ponds are drawn from life too – as in the novel, they were back beyond the railroad tracks, and were full of all manner of marvelous wriggling creatures.

Q. The novel moves in its very early stages into tragedy. Do you think it would be fair to say that the rest of the novel deals with overcoming that?

A.A number of people who have read Crow Lake feel that its main theme is bereavement and coming to terms with loss, but in fact, that was not uppermost in my mind when I wrote it. For me, the heart of the novel is the relationship between Matt and Kate, and the greatest and most tragic loss in the story is the loss of that relationship. The tragedy which occurs at the beginning of the book would have had an enormous effect on all the Morrison children, and the story of their attempt to remain together as a family is the backbone of the novel, but for me, the central struggle is Kate’s attempt to understand what went wrong between her and Matt – a struggle which requires her to re-evaluate the goals and principles by which she has lived her life.

Q. For you, what was the importance of the Ponds? Clearly the symbol of a bond of closeness between Matt and Kate but the strong emphasis placed on biological study is evident. Is this an area you yourself have studied in the past?

A.Initially, I based the novel around the ponds purely out of nostalgia. I remember the ponds where I grew up as a source of great delight. They are small worlds, after all, and if there are shelves or shallow places within them you feel as if you are seeing the whole of that world. It changes constantly, and yet it is always the same.

As the novel progressed, though, the ponds took on a wider significance. They were, as you say, as symbol of the closeness between Matt and Kate, but to me they also came to represent Kate’s childhood – the period of ‘innocence’ before she was, as she saw it, betrayed by Matt. The trips with Matt to the ponds survived the tragedy which overtook the family at the beginning of the book, and partly through them, Kate managed to survive it too. But they did not survive Matt’s ‘betrayal’, and in an emotional sense, neither did she. In fact, the ponds were the scene of the crime. Kate says in the book, ‘By the following September the ponds themselves would have been desecrated twice over, as far as I was concerned, and for some years after that I did not visit them at all.’

Years later, when Kate decides on her choice of career, it is partly because of a fear – almost a terror – that the ponds themselves, the symbol of the golden period of her childhood, may not survive. ‘I imagined myself,’ she says, ‘going back to them one day in the future, looking into their depths and seeing . . . nothing.’

Having set the novel around the ponds, the choice of biology as Matt’s passion and Kate’s later field of study was almost inevitable, but I was more than happy with that. I do not have a background in biology, but of all the sciences it is the most easily accessible to the layman, and as a subject it is so beautiful, and so fascinating, that I had no fear that readers would be put off by small passages of description.

Q. In her adult life, the breakdown of her relationship with her brother affects her relationships with other men, i.e. Daniel. What do you think is the significance of Daniel’s character and why did you choose him for Kate?

A.In spite of Kate’s denial, I think Daniel is quite a lot like Matt. He would have to be pretty special for Kate to be interested in him, and he would have to be quite unusual to be interested in Kate, disillusioned and bitter as she is! She says at one point that she had never expected to admire anyone again; if Matt could turn out to have feet of clay, what hope was there for anyone else? And yet she admires Daniel. She sees in him the qualities that she knows she is lacking in herself – tolerance, open-mindedness, and generosity of spirit. Daniel can see the whole view, whereas Kate is blinkered by the past. He represents what she would like to have been, and just possibly might still be.

On another level though, Daniel represents what Matt should have been, and this is a problem for Kate. When she looks at Daniel, she sees all that Matt has lost.

On his side, I believe Daniel is attracted to Kate partly because of her honesty. She does not pretend, to others or to herself. It is this which is her salvation, in the end – she is able to look at her ‘picture of how things are’, and see that it is wrong.

Q. What do you think lies behind the anger and resentment between the two brothers, Matt and Luke, which results in violence?

A.I think a lot of the tension between Luke and Matt stems from the fact that their balance of power has shifted. Until ‘the accident’, Luke was very much the lesser brother. He was a standard bored, sullen, resentful teenager, his deficiencies highlighted by comparison with his brilliant younger brother.

And then comes the accident. Traumatic though it is, I think the accident is the making of Luke. From being the family problem, he becomes the family solution. He sees that it is in his power to save the rest of the family, and he does that, at great personal cost. Perhaps he would have ‘found himself’ anyway, but it would have taken a long time. In particular, it is Bo’s overwhelming need of him that transforms Luke. No one ever needed him before, and no one adored him as she does. ‘Yeah, but she likes me,’ he says to Aunt Annie. You could say that he needed Bo every bit as much as the other way round.

So Luke is now the head of the family. He is mother and father rolled into one, and this is a problem for Matt. I don’t see Matt as being jealous or resentful by nature, but still, things have changed, and the change is hard for him to accept. He is hugely indebted to Luke, and that debt would be a heavy burden. You expect your parents to make sacrifices for you – that is what parents do – but you don’t expect it of your siblings.

To complicate matters, Matt genuinely doubts Luke’s ability to carry off his plan. His lack of faith would have been galling to Luke.

What it boils down to, I guess, is sibling rivalry, that plus the anxiety, uncertainty and grief which both boys had to deal with at the time.

Q. Did you enjoy writing this novel? And did the final ending mirror that which you had in mind when you started to write?

A.I loved it. Initially when I answered this question, I wrote ‘I loved every minute of it.’ My husband, reading it through, scribbled, ‘That’s a load of bull. You did not. I was there.’ So for the sake of absolute accuracy, I’ve deleted ‘every minute of’.

I knew how it was going to end, though for a long time I couldn’t work out how to get there. How to get Kate to see that she had got it wrong – that was the problem. Daniel and Marie helped me out in the end.

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