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Manitoba History: Book Review: Nora Foster Stovel, Divining Margaret Laurence: A Study of Her Complete Writings

by Sarah Klassen
Winnipeg

Number 62, Winter 2009

Margaret Laurence is best known and most admired for her five Manawaka novels. Her readers may be unaware that her first book, A Tree for Poverty, was a collection of Somali poems and folk tales she had translated while living with her husband in Somalia. It was published in 1954 in Nairobi. Her last book, Dance on the Earth: A Memoir, was published in 1989.

Laurence’s three decades of writing have given scholars a vast field for research and analysis. No study has been as comprehensive as Nora Foster Stovel’s recent Divining Margaret Laurence. Stovel addresses not only the Manawaka cycle but Laurence’s entire oeuvre: juvenile writing, poems, African stories and translations, essays and travel writing, memoir, children’s stories and even her unfinished novel. She draws extensively on what other critics have written as she attempts to show how Laurence’s various works reflect or prefigure each other and how they illustrate the author’s expanding sympathies and artistic development.

In Somalia, Stovel writes, Laurence “[c]learly...learned much about language and metaphor, characterization and dramatization from translating Somali folk literature, both poetry and prose, that enhanced her own writing, both African and Canadian” (106).

Thematically too the African and Canadian writings are linked, Stovel argues. The female protagonists in the Manawaka novels must free themselves from patriarchy, pride and fear, and must acquire self-knowledge and identity. These themes are foreshadowed in the author’s African writings, where she portrayed the darker side of colonialism of which she said bluntly, “I’m against it.”

Stovel notes the influence on Laurence of French psychologist Olivier Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (1950) which according to Laurence “...opened up to me an understanding of some of my own feelings and experiences in east and west Africa, and in the end, perhaps, taught me as much about my own land and the terrible injustices and outrages committed by imperialism against our native peoples...” (8). Her empathy for ‘our native peoples’ is abundantly evident in the Manawaka novels, as is her insistence on self-determination for women. Stovel shows how Laurence’s later writings reveal that her sympathies grew to include the welfare of planet earth.

Though in most of Laurence’s African fiction the protagonists were male, her sympathy was with the women. This is strongly evidenced in her non-fiction writing where she tackled such topics as female genital mutilation, child prostitution and oppression of ‘the other.’ Stovel notes that, “her sympathy with the plight of African women translated into her portrayal of the self-empowerment of Canadian women in her Manawaka cycle” (152). She undergirds this assertion by quoting Barbara Pell, a Laurence scholar from Trinity Western University: “Laurence’s Canadian heroines were born in Africa” (152).

The chapters on the five Manawaka novels may be the most attractive section of this book to non-academic readers. Stovel’s discussion of the autobiographical nature of these stories adds little that is new: Margaret Laurence admits to basing Manawaka on the town of Neepawa where she grew up, and which she left, like her protagonists. The stern grandfather and the Scots Presbyterian morals she knew found their way into her fiction.

In claiming archetypal stature for Hagar, the ‘holy terror’ of The Stone Angel, or commenting on Laurence’s recurring images of birds, horses and flight, or interpreting Vanessa’s and Morag’s stories as “portraits of the artist,” Stovel is not so much shedding new light as summarizing the accumulated wisdom offered by a variety of scholars and critics, whom she rarely challenges.

Stovel notes the ways Laurence employed memory in developing her novels structurally. In The Stone Angel, Hagar’s memories provide backstory to her final adventure. Morag’s “memory bank” sequences are a postmodern plot device employed to reveal the protagonist’s artistic progress in The Diviners. And in A Bird in the House, the adult Vanessa’s memory sheds light on the thinking and character of the child Vanessa as she relates to an Aboriginal friend, rebels against her strict grandfather or finds a role model in a favourite aunt.

The chapter on The Diviners with its focus on the editing process will be of special interest to writers, who may be surprised to learn that the original typed manuscript contained nearly 700 pages, and that the American Knopf editor requested more than 100 excisions! Stovel quotes from Margaret Laurence’s notes defending these passages, and for the most part seconds the defense, pointing out what is lost in the edits. In most cases Laurence bowed to the editor.

Stovel also links Laurence’s little-known, largelyignored, and sometimes out-of-print children’s books with her adult novels. The plot and theme of Jason’s Quest, for instance, parallel the physical journeys that take the Manawaka women away from home (usually west) and also their spiritual search for freedom and self-realization. The Olden Days Coat reflects The Diviners in its focus on time, specifically the continuity of past, present and future. It further demonstrates the fuller understanding of the past that all the Manawaka protagonists acquire over time and through life’s hard knocks. Stovel further points out the progression in the children’s books from patriarchy in Jason’s Quest (as in her African stories) to matriarchy in The Olden Days Coat (as in the Manawaka cycle).

For biographical details of the author’s life, Stovel refers frequently to James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence. Laurence’s posthumously-published Dance on the Earth: A Memoir, she notes, is less forthcoming than King’s work and has left readers unsatisfied. The title of the memoir was intended as the title of a new novel Laurence started but set aside to write the memoir. Notes for the unfinished novel became available when Laurence’s archived papers at McMaster University were released in 1997. With access to this material, Stovel could include in her book a discussion of the unfinished manuscript and inform her readers that the image of the dance, which now concludes her memoir, was originally intended as the conclusion of the novel (282).

This book succeeds in gathering together between its covers pretty well everything Margaret Laurence has written and essentially everything critics have said about her writing. A notable achievement. With its chapter notes, full list of books cited, and a detailed index, this volume will be appreciated and welcomed most by scholars. But lay readers should not hesitate to read it too. They will likely find themselves wanting to reread their favourite Laurence novel and then sample the less familiar writings of this Canadian icon.

Page revised: 21 May 2016

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