Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Has your family stuffed you into a role?

Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson

“I remember reading somewhere a theory to the effect that each member of the family has a role—‘the clever one,’ ‘the pretty one,’ ‘the selfish one.’  Once you’ve been established in the role for a while, you’re stuck with it—no matter what you do, people will still see you as whatever-it-was—but in the early stages—according to the theory, you have some choice as to what your role will be.” 
In this novel, the narrator recognizes the tight compartments that family members assign to one another, yet when she goes on to describe how her eldest brother was assigned the troublesome , irresponsible type, she has no awareness of how grimly determined that brother is to smooth the family chaos, to hold himself responsible for their emotional, physical and spiritual growth. 

The family lives on the edge of Crow Lake, an isolated community in Northern Ontario.  After a family tragedy, the eldest brother does his best to hold his family together, even if it means sacrificing his own goals and freedom.  Because he has never been her favourite brother, the narrator pays less attention to him than to her other brother, the one she adores.  Both brothers are steadfast and caring, both equally deserving of her love. 
Crow Lake is an honest depiction of family life—the toddler never cries but roars enraged and smashing saucepans around on the floor, diapers are left stained, carrot peelings fall where they may.  Descriptions of the terrain are luminous, and the times resonate.  The narrator is mostly recalling the tragic events of her childhood from the viewpoint of the emotionally repressed research scientist she has become.  Her field of research is aquatic biology, sparked by the many childhood trips to the local ponds with her elder brother who showed her the miracles within the teeming life forms found in the deep green waters.  In her adult life, the narrator no longer shares any miracles with this brother; her feelings of awe and adoration have broken down to resentment and despair.

Between the vivid descriptions of family and place, Lawson builds terrific suspense.  From the onset we know that tragedies will occur, but they aren’t necessarily predictable.  Early into the novel the narrator wryly tells us the three rules her family had always held:  ‘Thou shalt not emote,’ ‘Thou shalt not admit to being upset,’ ‘Thou Shalt on No Account Explain Why.’  These rules figure into the family traumas and tragedies, but are not the complete source of the pain the family endures. 
As far as literature therapy goes, if you’re struggling with a family member who isn’t fulfilling expectations, or worse still, if you are the family member who isn’t conforming, this could be an excellent read for you.

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