Ann-Marie MacDonald doesn't disparage Oprah, but don't mistake her for a literary lightweight
Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees is the all-time best-selling debut novel by a Canadian and it deserves to be. Her Can lit is both accessible and glamorous, two qualities for which we aren’t usually recommended and that offend all the right people.
Her most recent effort, The Way the Crow Flies, follows Madeleine McCarthy, the daughter of an Acadian mother and a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot father who is transferred in the early ’60s from Germany to a base in mid-Ontario. These are the (loose) facts of MacDonald’s own childhood. And with her wide-angle eye for detail and incisive intelligence, it’s a world she both beautifully and tenderly renders and eviscerates.
Like her breakout novel, The Way the Crow Flies is a tome (it’s over 700 pages long) and it’s encyclopedic. Even her "sources and acknowledgements" run to over four pages – she culls as readily from Acadian folk tunes and Leonard Cohen as Henry Mancini and T.S. Eliot. The book itself is at once a spy intrigue and a historical melodrama, as MacDonald follows the reverberations of historical change, transposing the larger political tensions of the Cold War onto a fraught family setting.
One might expect MacDonald to have a certain ironic detachment from the mores and scenes of the early ’60s, but instead, there’s a sense that she is intrepid, exploring the world’s complexity through her characters. "There’s a naiveté about the times, a goodwill and optimism, I think, which was crucial to express – but on the other side, there was all this denial about everything, from the domestic to the global," she says. "With the technologies that [those in charge] were developing, everyone could be annihilated in a matter of days."
Perhaps the secret to MacDonald’s popularity has something to do with her identity as a mannishly sleek lesbian mother who blue-haired matrons from Topeka, Kansas proclaim as their hero on TV talk shows.
Certainly, MacDonald didn’t pull a Jonathan Franzen when she was taken up by Oprah’s book club – in fact, the idea that a writer might be above commodification is repulsive to her. "It’s sexist, simple as that, because [the book club is seen as being for] women," she says. "I don’t always agree with the book selection, but so what? Getting down off the high horse is fairly easy to do. If the Oprah people wanted a shot of me walking down the beach at sunset, what do I care? I used to be an actor."
This said, MacDonald is hardly an airport-paperback-quality writer, even if Fall on Your Knees has sold more copies than any other Canadian novel. She is, though, a bit of a literary Trojan horse by her own admission. "I don’t write in a socio-political void, and no one lives in one," she says. "It was actually pretty Machiavellian the way I did the lesbian subplot in Fall on Your Knees, because nothing gay happens until two-thirds of the way though, when the reader is already in the book. I’m not gonna say, ‘You can’t come in to my fortress because you’re not gay.’ If I expect people to go out and break bread with my characters I can’t beat them over the head with politics. I really believe it’s as simple as that – tell a good story and don’t treat people like they’re idiots."