Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tough sledding

Novel depicts family struggles in 1960s small-town Ontario

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Canadian author Mary Lawson may live in England, but it is her home of northern Ontario that truly inspires her craft.

Lawson is the author of the highly praised debut novel Crow Lake, its follow-up, The Other Side of the Bridge, and now Road Ends.

Clearly, this newest fiction does not match the power and elegance of Lawson's first, or even second, novel, but that does not mean it is undeserving of attention.

Intermittently tedious and frustrating, Road Ends still offers a reasonably compelling depiction of a particular place and time and of a particular and peculiar family.

In this case, the time is the late 1960s and the place, again, is the fictional small Ontario town of Struan. The family in question is the eight children and two parents that make up the Cartwrights.

Struan is defined by harsh winters and the hardiness of its citizens. These citizens are for the most part simple folk, struggling with day-to-day survival, and anchored to their way of life by ignorance and isolation, credit lines and family obligations.

Like Crow Lake's Luke Morrison -- who makes an appearance in this novel -- Tom and Meg, the oldest of the Cartwright children, are particularly bound by this sense of family obligation. Both their parents have proved inept at parenthood, leaving the two siblings to care for the younger children.

While little explanation is given for their mother's distraction, their father Edward's back story makes up one of the main entry points into the narrative. It turns out he is so lost in regret and so fearful of becoming like his own abusive father, he feels he has no choice but to emotionally detach himself from his children's lives.

The narrative's two other, much more captivating, perspectives stem from Tom and Meg.

Tom is an aeronautical engineer, but beset by grief and guilt since his best friend's suicide, has returned to Struan to become the town's snow-plow driver.

"His goal was to construct each day like the hull of a ship, every action a plank fitting exactly up to the next, no gaps or holes where thoughts might seep in."

Meg, the only daughter in the family, is also stuck in Struan, making meals, doing laundry and disciplining her siblings, but manages to escape.

Although she has never even been as far as Toronto, she lands in London, England. There she is affronted by modernity and views and vices she didn't even know existed, but after a stumbling start, manages to find her way. She settles into an apartment and a job she loves, only to be called home at a time of need.

Meg knows she has never been appreciated at home, but that doesn't keep her from returning.

Ultimately, it is this tug of family, maddening and moving so genuinely imagined by Lawson that gives this novel its heart.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 g6

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