It might seem to be, at first glance, a quintessential CanLit passage, a poetic description of the natural world.
But the opening passage of The Company of Crows reveals more about Karen Molson’s debut novel, than one might think.
“Thin grey lines fan out across the earthscape like a gigantic, tattered spiderweb. The routes – some asphalt, some gravel – dissect realms of trees and loop around the huddled flat-roofed buildings; farther east, they separate swampy thickets from clusters of houses. Each subsection of the web relays a different complexion of light. The colours can change by the millisecond; in late summer, wind can sweep green from a field of ripe wheat and whirl it into gold. But it’s not yet the time for wheat.”
It will be preoccupied with the earthscape but also the airscape, which is what will reflect and refract the multiple complexions of light. The story of a thirteen-year-old girl named Veronica Reid, a story about an innocent negotiating the currents of experience.
It will be about weaving, telling a story in such a way that one might draw a single cord in and out of a broader work, to alter colour and texture, to accentuate and embolden. Surrounding and securing Veronica’s story are stories of other residents in the environs of Laughing Willows Trailer Park (some winged, others not).
It will observe variety and multiplicity, illuminate pathways and border-places, especially spaces in which the wild and the seemingly-not-so-wild must (or choose to) co-exist. Veronica is on the threshold of adulthood, an ominous and looming wilderness, but faces serious threats in spaces which are seemingly domesticated and protected; when her mother decides that the family will spend the summer in a trailer park, Veronica is keen to sleep on the porch, prepared to make even a small space her own, in this wider and wilder world.
It will consider change and transformation, small and large, the kind which unfurls across moments and seasons, relentless and glorious. Many of the characters, including Charlotte and Grace, have adapted to cope with stresses in their environments (with varying degrees of success), some in the natural world and others rooted in human relationships.
It will swoop and hint at what is to come, then circle back to a time before. Although told in the present tense, the novel is set in the summer of 1974. Written with an immediacy, it only quietly whispers about how poignant memories of one’s thirteenth summer could be.
Maybe Veronica doesn’t want to be a heroine. “It’s not that she wants to be a heroine, but she’d love to be someone other than herself. Someone lucky, smart, or even pretty would be good. Or just a bit less of a misfit.” Nonetheless, she inhabits the role in The Company of Crows.
Although she doesn’t necessarily fit the profile, at least not according to what she’s read in books (and she is quite a reader).
“She gnaws on a thumbnail for a while. Emma Bovary goes mad with despair. Anna Karenina. Scarlett O’Hara. But the thing with heroines is that none of them are stricken with acne, have to wear braces or endure thick eyeglasses – or, God forbid, all three at once. The heroines are always beautiful, always headstrong, every intrepid. Veronica feels like she becomes them when she’s reading about them. Even more so since her braces finally came off two months ago.”
Whether it’s a quiet nod to another CanLit heroine or not, Veronica’s musings about being beauiful or intelligent or good echo other coming-of-age tales in which lives of girls and women are restricted from the get-go (although Anne of Green Gables was written by a woman engaged to a minister, so goodness was perhaps more relevant than fortune in her worldview).
And Veronica herself deliberately works to echo her favourite stories, writing in her diary in old-fashioned language: the stuff of stories. Really, she is a heroine: she just doesn’t know it yet.
“Along with my childhood, I have left behind my former belief in imaginary things like unicorns and mermaids. These beliefs have been extinguished for good. I can see what it’s goingto take now to resolve my dilemma is a miracle.“
Perhaps that’s because even those who know her have not yet begun to recognize her heroine-potential. “Yesterday Veronica had come by looking for a needle and thread. She’s a strange girl, Grace reflects, those big glasses making her look so awkward, and that odd manner of speaking making her sound slightly foreign.”
And, to be fair, Veronica doesn’t recognize Grace to be a heroine either; Veronica does, however, feel a sense of kinship with the local librarian. (Not only is this anoter delightfully bookish passage, but it also brushes against the themes of innocence and experience, thresholds and wonders.)
“She helps Veronica fit all the books into her backpack. When she heaves it on to her shoulders, it feels to Veronica like the weight of joy; tangible, specific possibilities of vicarious journeys and knowledge and intriguing thing, all measured here in her backpack by the pull of gravity; in this haul, the real substance of wonder and enchantment.”
The Company of Crows considers a series of characters (most intimately, Veronica) who are travelling the archetypal territory of love and loss. A single moment can contain both tranquility and conflict.
“Most of all, she likes the fact that she can read her book between customers, pinning it to the counter with her elbows.
As the sun goes down, it slants parallel to the lane and falls between the trees, lighting up the spread pages. Soon she’ll turn the lights on behind her, but for now she’s absorbed in Pride and Prejudice. She’s just begun the last chapter when a shadow falls over the page.”
Karen Molson’s debut novel arcs and plummets with grace and intelligence: The Company of Crows is assured and accomplished.