The Crow Sits High in the Lilac Tree: And Other Stories


37 pages
ISBN 0-919665-00-4





Linda MacKinley-Hay was a teacher and freelance book reviewer in Fredericton, N.B.


The three stories in this slim volume by Keitha MacIntosh share a topography and theme, fitting together like pieces of a puzzle. The setting is the Chateauguay Valley in Quebec during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the figures who inhabit the stories are dairy farmers and their families who eke out an existence from the land. The contraries of imprisonment and freedom surface in each piece, forcing one character to strike out on her own.

The longest story, “The Magic Root,” is written from the point of view of a young girl who has been taken in by her widowed aunt after her mother “had come to a bad end.” Hope lives in a world of the imagination, preferring to skip in the solitary woodshed, to swing alone like “a bird thing that could fly away from everybody” and to conjure up a twin sister.

The voice of Aunt Righteous, which “always sounded as though you had done something wrong,” belies the prejudice and the hypocrisy from which Hope seeks freedom.

But there are pleasant things in this world too — there is the sun-patterned kitchen with its good smells, the hot water baths that “made you feel happy and safe” and the books in the school library. From the latter Hope learns the truth — that Indians are not dirty, they are clever and wise, and that they ate a magic root which gave them eternal life and freedom.

“The Devil Lives in a Grey Stone House” is the shortest and least successful piece. It is a story of relentless contraries and of little subtlety — as a newlywed Agnes had “set strong young cedars in a circle at the edge of the yard” to guard her dwelling with a magical ring, but now it has the force of a wall “holding her prisoner.”

Incessantly tormented by a brutish husband, a querulous invalid mother-in-law, and a rambunctious young son who is encouraged by his father to fight with her, Agnes seeks refuge in the kind neighbourliness of a farmer who offers her produce from his garden.

The title story concerns Felicity (who could be an older version of Hope from the first story) and her quest for freedom. The symbol of the crow that sits jauntily in the lilac tree is a measure of defiance, or refusal to bend to Amanda MacPherson’s will. Pursuing a young artist despite repeated warnings to desist, Felicity ends up “like a big rag doll, abandoned in play,” but finds a kind of freedom in death.

While ignorance and intolerance are viewed as constants in this collection, the overall impression is of the affirmation of the human spirit’s pursuit of freedom. These stories, however obvious at times, deserve a second reading.


MacIntosh, Keitha, “The Crow Sits High in the Lilac Tree: And Other Stories,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,