When I was a youngster in High School, every year we were subjected to a piece of Canadian Literature, or CanLit, or as we took to calling it; CannedLit. Invariably it seemed to be a book about coming of age on the Prairies during the Depression. I remember wondering if anyone east of Winnipeg ever wrote anything? Where were the stories about coming of age in Newfoundland? or maybe suburban Southern Ontario?
Then I read The Way the Crow Flies by Anne Marie MacDonald (published 2004) this past year. The book begins in 1963 with a wonderfully poetic and thoughtful description of a young RCAF family moving to RCAF Station Centralia, which used to be a flight training school located just north of where I grew up in London, Ontario. Our protagonist is 9 year old Madeline, an Air Force brat and still in the golden innocence of childhood where one can view the reality around oneself but still believe in fairies.
Of course, coming of age in the Post-Modern era unfortunately involves the threat of nuclear annihilation, Cold War lies and deceit, a sex molester and murder. The happy golden family is forever changed by the events of 1963 and 64 and it takes Madeline a long time to heal. I won't be a plot spoiler though but much of the conflict is inspired by the Steven Truscott case which happened around the same time at the nearby RCAF Station Clinton.
Part of what got me hooked was the opening chapters about life in a career military family, moving from post to post and Centralia in particular. My step-dad worked at Centralia in the '60s as a civilian graphic artist and this always fascinated me. Also at one point in the novel the family is in London Christmas shopping and they go to the Simpsons department store downtown where everybody went. It was also where most of the buses stopped so it was a common rendezvous, I met the future Mrs. Rabbitman there for our first date! Then they go to the Covent Garden Farmer's Market behind Simpsons and visit the German deli which I loved going to as a kid. Either the authour grew up in London in the '60s or she really did her research. But it was nice to be actually, finally reading a book in which I'd been to some of the settings and driven on some of the roads and knew the kind of landscape instead of always reading novels set in London, or Boston or New York.
The authour also keeps her prose firing on all cylinders right to the end as well. I find many novels start strong and then just become kind of, average at the end.
So bit of a military interest, bit of a creepy murder mystery, some interesting early '60s cultural commentary and lots of really damned fine writing. Highly recommended.
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