When you sit down to read a book over 800 pages, you know that you’ve committed to a very detailed story. When you’ve challenged yourself to finish every book come hell or high water, that commitment can be very daunting. Thankfully, The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald was mainly an enjoyable read about the unintended impact secrets can have.
Much of this book is told from the perspective of Madeleine, the young child of a happily married Royal Canadian Air Force family, and her father, Jack. As the book begins, her family is relocating to the base in Centralia, the site of the accident that prevented her father from battling the Germans during World War II. She looks up to her father, Jack, as a hero. She loves for him to tell her the stories of his plane accident and how he met her mother, Mimi. Mimi is Acadian and frequently speaks to her children in French. Like many younger siblings (most typically my own), she worships her older brother Mike and would like nothing more than to be in his favor. For a little more than 100 pages, the reader gets to know the McCarthys. They are a typical nuclear family.
Through a connection with his beloved flight instructor and mentor, Simon, Jack becomes involved in a covert mission to move a rocket scientist who has defected from the Soviet Union into the United States. Jack’s mission is to take care of him while he’s located in London, Ontario, waiting for an American soldier to take him over the border. To his knowledge, Jack is the only person in Ontario aware of what is happening. Although he feels guilty about keeping this mission secret from his Commanding Officer, the young American officer who does not know why his family has been stationed in Centralia, and his beloved wife. In the beginning, his little white lies are easy enough to conceal and he enjoys being “in the know.”
Madeleine enters grade four about a month after the move. She’s made two good friends, Auriel and Lisa, made contact with an unconventional family living across the street, has come to dislike a pushy girl named Marjorie, and dislikes her teacher, Mr. March. For the first few weeks of school, her life is what could be expected of a fourth grader. When her teacher begins making her stay after school to do backbends in front of his chair, the entire book picks up and becomes difficult to put down. Madeleine’s happy childhood is over. She is ashamed of what he does to her and no longer feels worthy of her parents, most especially her father. When Mimi senses something isn’t right, Jack takes over and misses the signals that Madeleine is fighting so hard to hide. As a reader, your heart breaks for her and for all of the girls forced to stay “after three.”
Madeleine’s despair eventually leads to a habit of smelling her fingers. She is sure that everyone can smell the disgusting things she’s experienced. On Halloween, Madeleine takes her emotions out by soaping Mr. March’s classroom windows and debarking a tree with her father’s golf club. Her conscience gets the best of her and it is her confessions to Mr. March and the principal that save her from having to stay after school any longer. In addition, she has become friends with Colleen, the oldest daughter of the non-military neighbors across the street. Colleen is a rough and tumble older girl. Eventually, she makes Madeleine her blood sister.
All of this would have been a happy thing for her, except that he chooses the daughter of the American officer to replace Madeleine in the “exercise” group. Claire is a nice girl and Madeleine cannot bare the thought of sparing herself for this to happen. She finds away to protect Claire, but her experience in the “exercise” group with Marjorie and Grace, the two class misfits, has set into motion a string of events that could not be stopped.
After Claire is murdered and Colleen’s brother is implicated, Madeleine’s family loses its shine. At the same time, Jack’s entanglements with the defecting scientist began to interrupt his work and home life. He is forced to choose between being the honest person he has prided himself with being, his family, and his closest friend in Centralia or his covert position and relationship with Simon. His decision changes his future and that of each member of his family. In fact, all of the families that Madeleine has come to know in Centralia make life changing decisions after the murder. Although it is believed that the murderer has been captured, everyone who was due to transfer does so happily. It was as if this mass exodus was a predictor of the eventual dissolution of the Royal Canadian Air Force itself.
As an adult, Madeleine has to come to terms with the abuse she experienced and the unsolved murder of her childhood. Her parents, while still married, have grown apart. Jack spends much of his time watching television while Mimi gets a job and loses herself in volunteer work. The mother and daughter are no longer close. For me, the book slows down at this point. It is interesting to learn of Madeleine’s career and her adult relationships, but the lead up to the conclusion is long and tedious. As many things are not a secret to the reader, the build up of Madeleine’s therapy sessions is anticlimactic.
This book would have been much improved if the first 100 pages were shorted 75 of the last 150 pages were somehow condensed. Also, there is a lead in to many sections that talks about the crows, and what they saw of the murder victim that took me out of the story. Their intended purpose was lost on me. Still, I enjoyed this book and looked forward to learning the fate of all the people we met in Centralia. Unless you’re dying to read a long book, I would suggest waiting for the movie. It ought to be really good.