Every once in a while a book will come along that is pretty much pitch perfect. Everything comes together in just the right way--good writing, a well plotted story, fine characterizations, weighty subject matter dealt with with sensitivity but in such a manner that you can't help turning the pages even when it's almost unbearable knowing what is coming (and you can almost see it coming, but the author still manages to floor you in the end).
Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies is just such a book for me. I finished it in October, but the task of writing about it has felt so monumental that I keep putting it off. And now the year is nearing the end and I want to make sure I give it the attention it deserves even if I feel like I won't be able to write about it adequately (hence my putting off writing about it for so long). It's quite a chunky book weighing in at over 800 pages. I could have went back to the beginning when I finished and started reading all over again. It's a book that I will happily reread someday (maybe even sooner than later). I even bought a new copy to give a coworker who I know will love it as much as I did, and I can't wait to thrust it into her hands and urge her to read it over the holiday break.
So now the problem (and what I've been trying to figure out since October) is how much to tell you to convince you to take a look at the book, too, without giving too much away. I went into the book knowing very little about it, letting the story unfold before me and tugging me along, allowing all the details to settle in my mind, letting the light bulbs go off in just the right sequence so I could piece it all together. There were moments during that process that were excruciating, but in a good way. Having an idea of what was coming yet not being entirely sure--sometimes being proven right and other times wrong made for compelling reading. That's the best way to experience this book.
Steeped in the culture of the 1960s the story focuses primarily on one family living on an Air Force Base on the Canadian border. Centralia has all the outward appearances of being a wholesome little community where neighbors are friends and people don't need to lock their doors at night. There is an innocence to the time and the people and the place even coming out of the horrors of the Second World War, which is still close enough to be a memory yet distant enough for the future to look bright and rosy where all things are possible--even putting a man on the moon.
For eight-year-old Madeleine childhood is a happy place within her tight-knit family. She idolizes her father Jack who to her young eyes can do no wrong. Her Acadian mother, Mimi, is firm but loving. And older brother Mike a typical boy who dreams of flying military jets like his father once trained to do, but was invalided out of the war early on. But maybe the Sixties were never quite as innocent as they seemed. Centralia is a fresh start for the McCarthys who were formerly living in West Germany. They arrive full of hope and optimism, with no greater expectations really than leading a good and happy life.
In books as in life the worst things can happen to the best people and sometimes they happen purely by chance, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And good people can make bad decisions. Or hard decisions. Jack McCarthy is a good man, and an honorable man, and it is just that honor that he tries so hard to uphold that lands him in a difficult position that will have repercussions for his family and community that will resound for many years after they've left Centralia.
It's through Madeleine's innocent eyes that this world is viewed and experienced. But Madeleine's own world implodes while the adults around her are dealing with their own 'adult' problems. Madeleine is a marvelous character, full of humor and insight--the sort of insight that comes with innocence even if it isn't really understood. And twenty years after her family has left Centralia she is still trying to make sense of what happened that year in 1962.
This is a story that reads like the best thriller, has elements of a mystery about it but is complex and sophisticated in what it sets out to accomplish. It's a morality tale of sorts and an exploration of the memory of not only the individual but of the collective memory of a society. I recently mentioned that books often make me feel all tingly. Well, this particular book makes me feel all tingly because what Ann-Marie MacDonald managed is such an impressive feat. If I've made you curious, do give the story a go. And don't be intimidated by the length as it reads very fast.
I read MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees about six years ago. While I found it a little harder to get into, once the story began to really roll, I couldn't put it down either. I have every intention of revisiting it as well and plan on digging around my bookshelves over the break to find my copy. Something to look forward to.