By Mary Lawson
This sat in my on-deck shelf for the longest time, mostly because I kept seeing it in used book stores thinking it was the kind of book that wasn’t really worth holding onto. But Crow Lake is far from a being a ‘remainder bin’ kind of book.
I don’t usually seek out this type of fiction. There is a bounty of Canadian books mining the territory of family hardship and growing up in the harsh unforgiving landscape yada-yada-yada that I’m simply not that interested in. Crow Lake piqued my interest because it was about an aquatic zoologist and a review I read way back when said there were beautiful passages about the natural world. I guess with anything in life, every now and then it can be a character-building process to delve into something you don’t normally do, especially with something that’s done well.
The story begins with a young girl named Kate who lives in a remote farming community in northern Ontario. Her brother, Matt, is a gifted student with a love of the natural world, spending countless hours studying the tiny inhabitants of the pond that’s situated on their land, from water insects to microscopic organisms. Luke teaches his little sister everything he knows about the pond ecosystem.
One tragic day, Kate, along with Matt, baby sister Bo, and eldest brother, Luke, are suddenly orphaned when their parents die in a car accident. Luke, who was about to attend teacher’s college, and Matt, barely out of high school, suddenly give up their aspirations to raise Kate and Bo at the farmhouse.
Then fast-forward to Kate, who’s grown up to be a brilliant zoologist in Toronto, but who has also grown distant, geographically and emotionally, from her siblings, who have never left their hometown. When Kate develops relationship issues with a fellow scholar when things get serious, she must confront her past if she doesn’t want to lose what could be the love of her life.
Ok, my summary towards the end got caught up in some clichés there, but really, this was a well-written book exploring the protagonist’s underlying, complex emotions with deft patience and control. And what's more, there were indeed satisfying and quietly beautiful passages about the natural landscape. Here's a sample:
By September everything was in seed. The seed heads shook their contents over you as you passed and the burrs clung to your clothes. Some days thousands of milkweed pods would burst open together, triggered by the heat of the sun; thousands and thousands of small silent explosions repeating themselves in salvos down the miles of tracks. On those days I walked through clouds of silken down drifting about like smoke in the morning breeze.
The understated quality and subtle character studies are probably why this novel hasn’t made any significant emotional impact on the general reader. There’s nothing catchy, no wow factor. But if you’re looking for a quietly thoughtful story, this is worth delving into.