Author and Background
Mary Lawson was born in 1946. She is a distant relative of Lucy Maud Montgomery (the Anne of Green Gables author was her grandfather’s first cousin). Lawson grew up in the small Ontario farming community of Blackwell near the shores of Lake Huron, outside Sarnia, where “there was nothing to do but read, for which I am grateful.” Her mother was a teacher and her father a research chemist for Esso. The family often spent summers at a cottage reachable only by canoe in the province’s Muskoka region. She graduated from McGill University with a degree in psychology in 1968. On a sojourn in London, England, she met and married fellow psychologist Richard Mobbs. They have two sons.
Crow Lake, Lawson’s first book, was published when she was 55. The manuscript was rejected for four years before she landed an agent and a publisher. Before that, she wrote what she described as formulaic short stories for women’s magazines.
The Morrison family lives on a farm on the fictional Crow Lake in Northern Ontario. Luke, the eldest son and a struggling student, has been accepted at teachers’ college. He will be the first of his family to gain a higher education. In the wake of this joyous news, his parents travel by car to the nearest town to buy him a suitcase. They are both killed when their vehicle is struck by a logging truck.
The accident orphans the four Morrison children: Luke, 18; Matt, 17; Kate, who is the narrator, seven; and the irrepressible Bo, a toddler. The neighbours support the bereft children by providing food. The kids’ Aunt Annie visits from the Gaspé region of Quebec. She says the children will have to be separated because the older boys will be unable to work or study while raising the younger girls. But Luke, who was never a strong student, instead decides to abandon college and get a job to keep his fractured family together.
The boys work for neighbouring farmer Calvin Pye, whose presence is more menacing than neighbourly. Pye is always angry, and most in the community suspect he beats his wife and children. Pye’s son disappears and is thought to have run away from home, although the troubling behaviour of his mother hints at a more profound loss.
Matt, a brilliant student, has a strong connection with his sister Kate. He turns her into his protégée by introducing her to the scientific wonders to be found in one of the many ponds that dot their land. Matt earns scholarships and is preparing to leave Crow Lake when he becomes involved with Pye’s daughter, Marie. She has been made meek and pliant in the face of her father’s murderous rages. An unplanned pregnancy leads Marie to reveal to the Morrisons that her father killed her brother. She fears he will kill her. Luke takes charge and calls a doctor and the police. When the police arrive at the Pye farm, Calvin shoots himself with a shotgun. Matt abandons his plans for higher education, marries Marie, and remains on the farm.
When Kate leaves for university, she takes with her a portrait of her great-grandmother, who had fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so as to become educated even as she completed chores. Kate goes on to enjoy the academic career she feels should rightly have been her brothers’. Her long overdue return to Crow Lake, with boyfriend Daniel in tow, comes on the occasion of the 18th birthday of Matt and Marie’s son, Simon. Now a zoologist, Kate is estranged from her family and her roots in Northern Ontario, feeling she has outgrown them.
The reunion forces Kate, who is accused by her boyfriend of lacking empathy, to confront her own feelings about her brothers’ lives and choices, as well as her sense that their relationship has been forever tainted.
Crow Lake explores the connection people hold for the land on which they are born, a common theme in Canadian literature. While some are satisfied to stay in the isolated farming community, others want to explore the wider world, which is likely possible only by going to college or university. In this way, higher education provides a means of betterment, or even freedom. Other themes in the novel include domestic abuse, family dynamics and sibling rivalry. Class rivalry, too, is hinted at as a mature Kate struggled with her feelings about the family she left behind.
Mary Lawson followed Crow Lake with The Other Side of the Bridge (2006). It is set in the fictional town of Struan, which is described in Crow Lake. The Other Side of the Bridge was longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Lawson’s third novel, Road Ends (2013), is also set in Northern Ontario. She has described the three novels as “The Struan Trilogy,” though they do not need to be read in any particular order.
Awards and Reviews
Crow Lake was cited as a book of the year by the Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Sunday Times of London. Lawson won the Books in Canada First Novel Award (now the Amazon.com First Novel Award) in 2003. She also won the £4,000 McKitterick Prize from the Society of Authors for a first novel published in the United Kingdom by an author older than 40. In 2010, CBC Radio listeners selected Crow Lake as one of the Top 40 essential Canadian novels of the decade. It was also included in 150 books to read for Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017.