It is a truth universally acknowledged, north of North Bay at least, that if you grow up in Northern Ontario, you have only two roads to choose from – the one out, or the one home. Leave, or stay: on this fulcrum rests everything you need to know about life, and families, in the snow-blasted, fly-bitten territory defined by a single road, TransCanada Highway 11.
This trope drives all three of Mary Lawson’s novels: Crow Lake (2002), The Other Side of the Bridge (2006) and now, Road Ends. In and around the fictional small town she calls Struan, not far from the actual towns of New Liskeard and Cobalt, on the shores of Lake Temiskaming, Lawson works the thin turf of subsistence farming, bleak long winters, sudden fires, car crashes, alcoholism, small town meanness and kindness in equal doses. But mostly, she forages in the messy compost of families, a potage made especially rich by absent (through death or neglect) parents, the comings and goings of siblings (both dead and living) and the burden of family history – mostly, sins of the fathers and martyrdom of the mothers.
The family in Road Ends is the Cartwrights: father Edward, a bank manager who prefers the solitude of his study and books about history to the chaos of the family of seven boys and one girl that he has apparently spawned only at the behest of his wife: “I wondered how I had come to father all those beings, having wanted none.” His wife is Emily, a ghost-like character on the precipice of mental illness, who rarely descends from the bedroom where she adoringly nurses her latest infant. Tom is the eldest boy; at 25, his promise as an aeronautical engineer is stymied by the suicide of his best friend. Megan is the bright capable daughter who, after fiercely managing the family from the middle of her adolescence, takes the road out at age 21. There is also a passel of unruly, miserable male siblings. Winter is a character in the novel.
The book embraces the fabled 1903 silver rush in the area, through the diaries of Edward’s dead mother, but its time period is really 1966-69, when news of the outer world (beyond North Bay) comes via radio, black-and-white TV and newspapers shipped up from Toronto on the train; when letters written on pale-blue tissue paper cross paths over the Atlantic, and transatlantic phone calls are only for Christmas, or deaths. In the Cartwright family, not even news of a new baby merits more than an aside in a letter.
In a landscape where roads often just stop because their original function, passage into a mining or lumber camp, has disappeared, obliterated by the surprisingly fast-growing bush, a “road ends” sign is not a redundant joke, it is a fact. In the book, the end of the road is at the top of a deep ravine, the scene of the suicide that precipitates the action, or rather the stasis, of the book.
There are several memorable characters in Road Ends – the almost silent, profoundly neglected little boy named Adam, who wanders around his house unbathed and hungry, because his mother’s attention is fixated on yet another infant (her ninth, including one who died). Tom, locked into isolation by the shock of his friend’s death, drives the snowplough in a winter of unceasing blizzards, a curiously specific activity that brings out some beautiful writing by Lawson – “Luke sat in silence, seemingly mesmerized by the plume of snow streaming off the blade of the plough. It was hypnotic, Tom knew: he’d had to train himself not to look at it.” And Megan is recognizable as a spirited young woman in sixties London, which is also recognizable, its signposts perhaps too familiar, Megan’s naivete a tad tiresome, jejune.
Edward is somewhat of a cipher, because of his almost unbelievable disconnect with his family; his mind is in the past, reliving the drunken rages of his father, a peripatetic would-be silver prospector, and his own war. The Cartwright house (home is too freighted a word) is a dreadful place, its stench and mess terrifying. As a reader, one welcomes Tom’s reluctant encounters with the town; Harper’s Café and Marshall’s Grocery and their inhabitants have a forthright brightness about them, an easeful balance to the other.
But really, Road Ends is Megan’s story, and about the portmanteau she lugs with her in her determination to leave it all behind, and construct her own unfettered life far, far away from Struan. On the surface, she achieves this quite brilliantly, everything falls into place, with a lot of hard work and more than a little luck. But, as the reader knows, the portmanteau is getting heavier and heavier.
This is a very readable book, its narrative compelling, its setting richly drawn, its characters sympathetic; you want things to end well, you feel badly for almost everyone. It does read, to some degree, like a retilling of ground already well worked over. The deck is a little too predictably stacked. The ending both necessary and maddening.
Marian Botsford Fraser left Kirkland Lake many years ago and now lives and writes in Toronto.