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Author Mary Lawson. Photo: Nathaniel Mobbs

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Why the Canadian Shield is the Bedrock of Mary Lawson’s Books

All of the acclaimed author’s novels – including her latest, A Town Called Solace – are set in northern Ontario, because nostalgia for ‘back home’ makes her writing come alive / BY Mary Lawson / February 18th, 2021


When I phoned my parents and announced that I was marrying an Englishman and we’d be living in the UK, my father (a man of few words) said, “When you’re older, you’ll miss home.” My mother said, “Mary dear, how lovely.” She wasn’t given to tears but my guess is that in the privacy of her room that night, she cried.

This was back in 1972. Four years previously, when I’d graduated from university, my parents had generously funded a holiday in England, where one of my brothers was living on a boat on the Thames. London was 20 minutes away on the train. It was the swinging sixties and in the whole world there was no better place to be.

After a couple of months, I ran out of money (there was a limit to my parents’ generosity). Should I go home? But if I went home the holiday would be over and I’d have to decide what to do with my life, which I didn’t feel ready to do. In the meantime, I thought, maybe I should get a job. Just temporarily, while I figured things out.

That’s how life goes, doesn’t it? You don’t realize you’re living it at the time, you think you’re getting ready to live it. You don’t realize that “not making a decision” might turn out to be a life-changing decision.

It was a good job, as it turned out, in a research lab. Interesting work, and the average age of my colleagues was 24. It was like university except that you were paid and there were no exams. I decided to stay a while. I didn’t think about home much. I had my brother here, and anyway, I was still just “on holiday” and would be going home soon. In any case, I was too busy having a good time. And then, in the way of such things, I fell in love with an Englishman.

We went home to get married. I’d grown up in an isolated farming community in southern Ontario but our family had had a cottage on a small lake in the incomparably beautiful landscape of the Canadian Shield since 1917, and all of us considered it to be our “real” home. It was there that we married, under a tree, on a point of land jutting out into the lake. It was sunny and warm with a light breeze, the lake clear and calm. My husband’s family flew over for the event; my whole family was there; my brothers, sister and I were together for the first time in years. It was beyond wonderful. I ached all day, with happiness and – though I didn’t acknowledge it then – with grief.

Mary Lawson's cottage on the lake, black and white, 1920.
The cottage in Muskoka, Ont., pictured in a family photo from the 1920s,  is where Lawson spent summers as a child, got married, brought her sons on holiday and now visits with her grandchildren. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Lawson

 

It was when we got back to the UK that reality set in; I was no longer on holiday. I would not be going home any time soon. The British Home Office contacted me about my citizenship. They assumed that as the wife of a British man I would be happy to give up my Canadian passport and become a British citizen. They explained that if I didn’t, I could be refused entry at the border any time I returned from a trip abroad.

It was clearly the logical thing to do, so I was surprised to find that I couldn’t do it. I loved England, I loved my husband, I loved our life. It was just that going home, and then leaving again, had triggered the realization that Canada was a fundamental part of who I was. I couldn’t change it any more than I could change my own bones. Maybe a passport is just a piece of paper, but it’s an official statement of who you are, and I found I was – and am – Canadian. I hung on to my passport. (I have never been stopped at the border.)

Don’t get me wrong, I have never for a moment regretted my decision to marry the man I married – I struck gold there. England has been extraordinarily good to me and I have been very happy here. It’s just that my father was right in saying that I would miss my own country as I got older. But he was wrong in thinking that I wouldn’t miss it earlier. I have missed it every day for over 50 years. I miss my family, and I miss Canada itself.

Mary Lawson revisits Northern Ontario in her fourth novel, ‘A Town Called Solace,’ about a recently divorced man who stumbles on a heart-rending family secret kept by an old woman.

 

Time passed. We had a son, and then another. (Guess where we took them on holiday? Guess where we now take our grandchildren?) In due course our sons started school. There were no part-time jobs available, so I decided to try writing. I wrote short stories, contemporary ones, set in the UK, because those were the ones that sold. I wrote a novel, but it wasn’t any good so I shredded it. I earned a bit, but not much. I enjoyed writing the stories a bit, but not much.

And then I had an idea for a short story that I felt I had to write, a story about a family in a small farming community in Northern Ontario, and the children’s struggle to stay together when the parents died. I set it in my own childhood, and in the landscape of the Canadian Shield, purely for the pleasure of writing about home. I knew it wouldn’t sell, but when it was finished I sent it out anyway, and immediately got a phone call from the editor of a magazine that had published my stories before. She said it wasn’t their kind of story but she loved it and was going to publish it anyway. Then she said, “You know you have the basis of a novel here, don’t you?” And then she said: “And Mary, you should write about your home. Your writing rises to a whole new level when you write about your home.”

That short story became Crow Lake, and I loved writing it. It was partly because I knew what I was talking about, and that gave me a confidence I’d never had before.

But mostly it was because while I was writing it, I was back in the landscape that formed me. Back home. I’m still there – in A Town Called Solace.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson was published by Knopf Canada on Feb. 16, 2021.

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