William Bell was born in Toronto on 27 October 1945. As a teenager, he attended the New Toronto Secondary School (now the Lakeshore Collegiate Institute). Quiet and an avid reader, Bell’s experience in high school is believed to have informed the setting and characterization of Crabbe, although Bell rejected the idea that he was the basis for his protagonist. In an interview with his publisher, Bell described Crabbe as “rebellious, troubled, idealistic and, at times, a little cranky. An easy person for all ages to relate to.”
After graduating from the University of Toronto, Bell moved to Orillia, Ontario, and began teaching English literature. Though he spent time teaching adults at the University of British Columbia and in China, he primarily taught school-age teens in a school district north of Toronto. He admitted that he found their lives more interesting as subjects for fiction. “My stories are about younger people,” he said, “because the characters are at a formative stage in their lives, struggling to discover who they are and where they fit into the world of people and events around them.”
Crabbe opens with Franklin Crabbe being admitted to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in Toronto. He is suffering from exhaustion, double pneumonia and exposure, and must have two fingers amputated due to severe frostbite. The novel takes the form of a journal, which Crabbe deems preferable to talking to the hospital psychiatrist. In his journal, Crabbe recounts the events that lead to his hospitalization.
Crabbe reveals that he is an intelligent but disaffected high school student. A borderline alcoholic, he frequently drinks vodka to help deal with the resentment he feels toward school in particular. In the spring of his final year of school, Crabbe begins making plans to flee to the wilderness to avoid living the life he feels his parents and society are forcing on him. When he is caught drinking at school, he takes it as an omen and leaves early.
Crabbe is unprepared for life in the wild and his early experiences are disastrous. He is attacked by a black bear attracted to food he leaves around his campsite. (See also Bear Attacks.) Crabbe survives only because he passes out from fear. Later, his supplies are ruined and he nearly drowns after he accidentally steers his canoe over a waterfall. Crabbe is pulled to safety by a mysterious woman who is also living in the woods. She nurses him back to health, and over the course of the summer teaches him how to survive in the wilderness. She also provides inadvertent advice on how to be an adult. Crabbe slowly becomes more confident and begins to fall in love with the woman. She doesn’t reciprocate his feelings and refuses to tell him her name or why she is living in the woods.
As winter approaches, the woman makes plans to return Crabbe to civilization. They visit a campsite so that the woman can steal supplies, but she is confronted by a group of angry, drunken men, who abuse and detain her. She is rescued by Crabbe but dies on the way back to their campsite. While going through her belongings, Crabbe learns that her name was Mary Callas, and that she was a university professor and anti-nuclear activist. She fled society after mercy-killing her husband, who had been left paralyzed and non-responsive after an accident during a protest. (See also Assisted Suicide in Canada.)
Moved by what Mary taught him and by what she endured, Crabbe resolves to return to society. He burns Mary’s campsite and belongings before he sets out. While travelling home, he is caught in a blizzard. He is able to make it to a major road, where he is rescued by a passing driver, though not before suffering the ailments detailed at the beginning of the book.
While in hospital, Crabbe reunites with his parents. During an emotional confrontation, he admits that all he wanted was control of his life, which they grudgingly accept. The novel ends with a recovered Crabbe taking a job at a wilderness camp for troubled youth.
Reception and Legacy
Crabbe launched William Bell’s career, which would include 19 books and multiple awards. By the time of his death from cancer on 30 July 2016, he was regarded as one of Canada’s most acclaimed authors of young adult fiction.
Crabbe became a popular choice on young adult reading lists and school curricula. A 2017 study by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization (OBPO) found that Crabbe was among the 20 most-cited books in Ontario classrooms. It was one of only three Canadian books on the list, along with Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
In a review of Crabbe’s 20th anniversary printing, the literary quarterly Canadian Literature attributed the book’s longevity to its “convincing narrative voice” and “precisely observed sense of detail.” It also praised the book’s treatment of gender, noting that Crabbe “question[s] the boys’ book convention of capable masculine heroism in its flawed complaining protagonist, who learns his most significant lessons from an unconventional woman.”