Margaret Laurence 1964, McClelland & Steward – First publication of the Manawaka Sequence
I was intrigued to discover a new-to-me Canadian author. In reading the book, I was introduced to Hagar Currie Shipley, ninety and full of spark. I met her father and brothers, her husband Bram, her nemesis Lottie, her sons Marvin and John and her daughter-in-law Doris. I knew Hagar as a child, teen, bride, wife, mother, and widow, and I watched as, at the age of ninety, she managed to escape the clutches of her children in an attempt to gain her freedom at last.
I had not heard of Margaret Laurence until I saw her name on the cover of a used book. That book was The Stone Angel, and the limited research that followed told me that Ms. Laurence was one of Canada’s most celebrated authors. I’m not surprised at my ignorance; even though I was raised in Michigan, the world may as well have ended at the very top of Lake Superior for the amount of Canadian non-hockey information that was shared with us in school.
There is no question that the book is well-written, rich in authentic emotion and detailed descriptions of nature. The symbolism is profound, if the reader is watching for it, and the characterization is excellent. (That Doris – what a pill.) The author sketches scenes of profound pain without ever using the word “pain.”
I wish I hadn’t read it.
I finished the book about half an hour ago, and the sadness hasn’t lifted yet. I suppose that’s a mark in the author’s favor; she has painted characters and events in a way that pulled me into their unfolding. Hagar could be any one of us. Her life is not a happy one, but it’s not tragic for the most part; she loses some family members, but the losses are described with a minimum of fuss and her husband is distant, but not cruel or abusive. Hagar, in the end, is an acerbic, slightly unpleasant woman who lives a life much like the life of any early 20th-century prairie farmer’s wife. She could have been my great grandmother; she could have been me. And that’s why I’m sad – becasue conversely, I could be her.
The Stone Angel was made into a movie starring Ellen Burstyn; it premiered in 2007. Another book in the Manawaka Sequence, A Jest of God, was the basis for the 1968 film “Rachel, Rachel,” directed by Paul Newman.
Margaret Laurence lived a life completely unlike Hagar’s; she was a journalist who traveled the world with her husband. She committed suicide in her mid-sixties after learning that she had lung cancer. She also wrote under the pen name Steve Lancaster.