Ann-Marie MacDonald's vividly troubling second novel is beautifully crafted and dead-on in its characterization of a 1960s military-family life seen largely through the...
Ann-Marie MacDonald’s vividly troubling second novel is beautifully crafted and dead-on in its characterization of a 1960s military-family life seen largely through the eyes of 8-year-old Madeleine and her father, Jack, a Royal Canadian Air Force officer posted in a small Canadian town near the U.S. border.
To submit to the 713 pages of excruciatingly deliberate pacing in MacDonald’s “The Way the Crow Flies” is to be both transported and haunted. One of the parallel story lines centers on the sexual abuse of Madeleine and several of her classmates by their fourth-grade teacher, and it is utterly, heartbreakingly convincing. The other builds on a favor Jack carries out for a revered former flight instructor.
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His agreement to look after a man he believes is a scientist escaping East Germany pulls him into the shadowy world of Cold War espionage and reveals troubling space-race politics by a U.S. government determined to best the Soviets.
The plot lines intersect cleverly when a classmate of Madeleine’s is found murdered, and Madeleine and her father assume separate burdens of guilt about their real, and imagined, roles in the crime. MacDonald makes plausible just the sort of surreal news story we shake our heads over, as families and community alike are ripped open by the witch hunt and court case that follow the killing.
When future critics examine popular writing at the turn of this century, they’ll no doubt ponder all the memoirs, novels and movie scripts that center on this horrific theme. This obsession with child abuse has its positives, not the least of which is an atmosphere that may foster prevention and allow victims to be more easily heard (and, in some cases, healed). But revisiting this pain surely has a price as well; the deep sadness and anger left in the wake of MacDonald’s compelling work is not to be shaken off when the plot details are tied up.
MacDonald does a stunning job of conveying a particularly heinous aspect of childhood abuse the high need children have to try to “fix” bad situations and their typical assumption of self-blame for chaos and damage foisted on them by adults. These juvenile traits mesh perfectly with the pathology of tyrants, particularly trusted figures like teachers, clergy and older relatives, who abuse them and entreat them to remain silent.
Shame, as Madeleine discovers, is a force so powerful that it carries an odor of its own, picked up only by the sufferers, and is composed of poison lethal enough to gradually sicken an entire, loving family.