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The Way the Crow Flies [Paperback]

Ann-Marie Macdonald
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 17 2004
“The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolor. Everyone had the same idea. Let’s get married. Let’s have kids. Let’s be the ones who do it right.”

The Way the Crow Flies, the second novel by bestselling, award-winning author Ann-Marie MacDonald, is set on the Royal Canadian Air Force station of Centralia during the early sixties. It is a time of optimism -- infused with the excitement of the space race but overshadowed by the menace of the Cold War -- filtered through the rich imagination and quick humour of eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy and the idealism of her father, Jack, a career officer.

As the novel opens, Madeleine’s family is driving to their new home; Centralia is her father’s latest posting. They have come back from the Old World of Germany to the New World of Canada, where the towns hold memories of the Europeans who settled there. For the McCarthys, it is “the best of both worlds.” And they are a happy family. Jack and Mimi are still in love, Madeleine and her older brother, Mike, get along as well as can be expected. They all dance together and barbecue in the snow. They are compassionate and caring. Yet they have secrets.

Centralia is the station where, years ago, Jack crashed his plane and therefore never went operational; instead of being killed in action in 1943, he became a manager. Although he is successful, enjoys “flying a desk” and is thickening around the waist from Mimi’s good Acadian cooking, deep down Jack feels restless. His imagination is caught by the space race and the fight against Communism; he believes landing a man on the moon will change the world, and anything is possible. When his old wartime flying instructor appears out of the blue and asks for help with the secret defection of a Soviet scientist, Jack is excited to answer the call of duty: now he has a real job.

Madeleine’s secret is “the exercise group”. She is kept behind after class by Mr. March, along with other little girls, and made to do “backbends” to improve her concentration. As the abusive situation worsens, she is convinced that she cannot tell her parents and risk disappointing them. No one suspects, even when Madeleine’s behaviour changes: in the early sixties people still believe that school is “one of the safest places.” Colleen and Ricky, the adopted Metis children of her neighbours, know differently; at the school they were sent to after their parents died, they had been labelled “retarded” because they spoke Michif.

Then a little girl is murdered. Ricky is arrested, although most people on the station are convinced of his innocence. At the same time, Ricky’s father, Henry Froelich, a German Jew who was in a concentration camp, identifies the Soviet scientist hiding in the nearby town as a possible Nazi war criminal. Jack alone could provide Ricky’s alibi, but the Cold War stakes are politically high and doing “the right thing” is not so simple. “Show me the right thing and I will do it,” says Jack. As this very local murder intersects with global forces, The Way the Crow Flies reminds us that in time of war the lines between right and wrong are often blurred.

Ann-Marie MacDonald said in a discussion with Oprah Winfrey about her first book, “a happy ending is when someone can walk out of the rubble and tell the story.” Madeleine achieves her childhood dream of becoming a comedian, yet twenty years later she realises she cannot rest until she has renewed the quest for the truth, and confirmed how and why the child was murdered.. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called The Way the Crow Flies “absorbing, psychologically rich…a chronicle of innocence betrayed”. With compassion and intelligence, and an unerring eye for the absurd as well as the confusions of childhood, , MacDonald evokes the confusion of being human and the necessity of coming to terms with our imperfections.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Prizes and Awards: Giller Prize Shortlist 2003

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The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald's first novel since her bestselling debut, Fall on Your Knees, opens in 1962 when the McCarthy family moves from Germany to their new home on a Canadian air force base near London, Ontario. Madeleine, eight and already a blossoming comic, is particularly close with her father, Jack, an air force officer. Her loving Acadian mother, Mimi, and older brother Mike round out this family, whose simple goodness reflects the glow of an era that seemed like paradise. But all that is about to change. The Cuban Missile Crisis is looming, and Jack, loyal and gullible, suddenly has an important task to carry out that involves a scientist--a former Nazi--in Canada.

While Jack scrambles to keep his activities hidden from his wife, Madeleine too is learning to keep secrets (about a teacher at school). The Way the Crow Flies is all about the fertility of lies, how one breeds another and another. Although the writing flows with a strong current, the profusion of pop references, especially ad slogans, grows tiresome. The author can, however, capture a lovely image in few words: "The afternoon intensifies. August is the true light of summer" and "yes, the earth is a woman, and her favourite food is corn." At times the story is marvelously compelling, as the mystery of a horrific murder in the fields near the base is unravelled. When events lead to a trial and its outcome, the story peaks, in a conclusion with no easy answers. The last third of the book takes place, for the most part, 20 years later. Here the novel meanders somewhat, losing its ability to captivate with the same intensity. The reader longs to return to the earlier world, which MacDonald has captured in vital detail. --Mark Frutkin --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

A little girl's body, lying in a field, is the first image in this absorbing, psychologically rich second novel by the Canadian author of the bestselling Fall on Your Knees. Then the focus shifts to the appealing McCarthy family. It's 1962, and Jack, a career officer in the RCAF, has just been assigned to the Centralia air force base in Ontario. Jack's wife, Mimi, is a domestic goddess; their children, Mike, 12, and Madeleine, 8, are sweet, loving kids. This is an idyllically happy family, but its fate will be threatened by a secret mission Jack undertakes to watch over a defector from Soviet Russia, who will eventually be smuggled into the U. S. to work on the space program. Jack is an intensely moral, decent guy, so it takes him a while to realize that the man is a former Nazi who commanded slave labor in Peenemande, where the German rockets were built in an underground cave. Meanwhile, Madeleine is one of several fourth graders who are being molested by their teacher, and one of them winds up dead in that field. McDonald is an expert storyteller who can sustain interest even when the pace is slow, as it is initially, providing an intricate recreation of life on a military base in the 1960s. As the narrative darkens, however, it becomes a chronicle of innocence betrayed. The exquisite irony is that both Madeleine and her father, unbeknownst to each other, are keeping secrets involving the day of the murder. The subtheme is the cynical decision by the guardians of the U.S. space program to shelter Nazi war criminals in order to win the race with the Russians. The finale comes as a thunderclap, rearranging the reader's vision of everything that has gone before. It's a powerful story, delicately layered with complex secrets, told with a masterful command of narrative and a strong moral message.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Masterful writing of a solid tale March 22 2009
By Schmadrian TOP 500 REVIEWER
I'd put off reading this novel since it came out. Mostly because of the effect that 'Fall on Your Knees' had on me. (Which included handing out more than fifty copies to friends and family since its publication.) Fear must have been part of it, fear about how much better this one might be, might not be... 'Fall' was proof to me of how great writing could be. The author writing something better might have had me intimidated (yes, I'm a writer), and yet her writing something 'not better, not even as good as' might have disappointed me so much to have had a deleterious effect. Fortunately, neither possibility resulted.

Ms MacDonald is an extremely talented writer. There is an assuredness in her writing, in how she executes what she does, that goes deep. For me, a novel (or a screenplay for that matter) has its author taking the reader by the hand, saying "I have a story for you. Walk with me while I tell it to you..." When this is done with confidence (and not just 'writerly ability, getting the vocabulary, the grammar, the construction right) the whole reading experience is taken up a level, approaching being transported. And yet she does not 'over-write'. She is not prone to 'purple prose'. She is as likely to throw out a juicy riff as she is to dig deep. Clearly a great observer of people, she understands the complexities of character and relays them with honesty and humour. Moreover, though every piece of writing is, at its core, an expression of the writer, 'Crow' is clean, unencumbered by 'at least to these eyes' literary earmarks.

This novel has a lot going on. And yes, I'm not sure that it needed to be as expansive as it is. ("Couldn't you just take out a few notes?") When I began the final 150 or so pages, I confess I did mutter 'This better be good...
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Dec 12 2003
By A Customer
This is simply one of the best books I have read in a very long time. The way in which MacDonald evokes the innocence of early 60's domestic life in Canada and then shatters that image is stunning. On one level, this is a mystery and another, it is an insightful examination of the destructive power of lies. A truly great read.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great! July 30 2007
"The Way the Crow Flies" is one of the best books I have read this year-- I work (toil is more like it) in a bookstore, so I get to read a great many things-- mostly crap, to be honest. MacDonald's voice as a writer is so unique-- it is almost trance-inducing. She has a complete mastery of language and can take you right into the world of her characters, into their lives, into their minds. I found the story itself just as fascinating, the same way the books "Bark of the Dogwood" and "Glass Castle" are full of great characters and heartbreak. For anyone who has ever kept a secret (and who among us has not), no matter how huge or how tiny, this book is an intense reminder of the prices paid. I cried my eyes out at the end of the book--I don't want to give anything away about this story; read it and take from it what you can. My interaction with my own family will never be the same after this book.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful writing but excessive & depressing July 2 2004
By A Customer
I was very hopeful when starting this novel, however I agree with the & Books Canada reviews. I love the descriptions and the flow of the writing. Unfortunately, Ms. Macdonald tries to include too many details and the last 150 pages are difficult to finish and more horrific than necessary.
It has the feeling that things just aren't horrible enough and every gruesome detail needs to be revealed and forced upon you.
I felt depressed by the overly sunny beginning to the completely shattered ending. No light is left glowing. The description of the murder was excessive & not truly believable. The description of the lead character's adult life was monotonous.
There is something to the saying "Less is more".
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4.0 out of 5 stars A page-turner from start to finish June 10 2009
Since there are numerous reviews revealing the plot and characters, I will not take up time and space and go down that same road again. Contrary to many reviewers' opinions, I did not find the book depressing. On the positive side, it was a real page-turner from start to finish and one of the main characters, Madaline, kept me chuckling along the way especially in her youth. The book begins in the 60's, and for me, brought back many memories of old songs, movies and celebrieties mentioned that were long forgotten. (If you are too young to reminisce about Dion and "The Wanderer", simply don't know what you missed!) There was also a touch of everything from family life, and the exuberance of youth, to rape and murder -"something for everyone," as one might say. The book is a lengthy one and has a surprise twist at the end regarding who actually committed the murder.

On the negative side, the participation of Madaline's father's (Jack's) involvement in the air force, past activities and rehashing of outdated military events become boring and tedious at best. Overall, I would recommend the book, although there may be parts of Jack's long-winded military career, which really added nothing to the book, that the reader might like to skim through or pass by entirely. It often seemed like the author was trying to write two books but decided to combine them in one, i.e., one about Madeline, her friends, family life, and murder, and one about Jack's life in the military. Somehow the two simply did not gel well together.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and Compelling
Nine year old Madeleine is used to moving. She moves all the time. Her father, a member of the Canadian Air Force, receives a new post every four years. Read more
Published on May 1 2009 by Jamieson Villeneuve
4.0 out of 5 stars Completely engrossing!
Macdonald is a fine writer who Canada should be proud of. Her writing is exquisite and her narrative tightly woven. The story is especially engrossing. Read more
Published on Sept. 24 2008 by Bethann McLaren
5.0 out of 5 stars I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!!
This book kept be spellbound from beginning to end. I loved the author's descriptions of the places in Ontario -- it was so refreshing to read a book that takes place in Canada,... Read more
Published on May 16 2008 by A Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
In a word: wow

I stayed up until 3am to finish this book because I was so tied up in the characters that I just had to know how things turned out. Read more
Published on Sept. 18 2007 by Melanie
4.0 out of 5 stars Set aside some time for this book
A BIG book at 832 pages. Takes a bit to get into. Set in the 60s -Reminiscent of the Truscott case. Characters so well drawn, you'd recognize them on the street. Read more
Published on July 4 2007 by Mary Ellen
5.0 out of 5 stars MacDonald has Landed
A well written and entertaining book that was inspired by the true Canadian life of Stephen Truscott. Read more
Published on Aug. 30 2006 by Dan Richardson
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent...except for the last 150 pages
I would give this book 5 stars except the last chunk is significantly weaker than the vast majority of this lengthy novel... Read more
Published on June 9 2006 by April
3.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing Book . . . . . . .
I have just finished this book and I am a bit stunned. Like the other reviewers, I found the last part of this book not as well done as the first part. Read more
Published on Oct. 5 2005 by Raeanna Scharft
5.0 out of 5 stars Great achievement in writing
Ms. McDonald has written quite the complex psychological story about the precursors and aftermath of tragedy. We are transported to a time where innocence and secrecy prevailed. Read more
Published on Aug. 19 2005 by Dan Beaudette
5.0 out of 5 stars Great!
"The Way the Crow Flies" is one of the best books I have read this year-- I work (toil is more like it) in a bookstore, so I get to read a great many things-- mostly crap, to be... Read more
Published on June 20 2005 by B. Boethius
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