Thursday, March 13, 2014

Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel (1964)

Reading this novel about a 95-year-old woman from a prairie town in Manitoba, I kept thinking of how seldom frontier fiction tells the stories of frontier women. The genre has so long relegated them to the sidelines of action-adventure stories about men, it seems not even odd to find them mostly missing from the panoramic narrative of the West.

Hagar Currie in Margaret Laurence’s novel shows what it might have been like to enrich that picture with stories reflecting lives actually lived by women on the frontier. Named for the slave of Abraham and the mother of his son Ishmael in Genesis, Hagar has all the grit and survival instincts of her biblical counterpart. She is as much a feature of the western landscape as any adventuring man who has fetched up there.

Abraham sending away Hagar
Plot. The novel is more a character study than a story with beginning, middle, and end. It has all those, actually, but not in chronological order. As memories of the past crowd into Hagar’s awareness of the present, we are able to piece together the circumstances and the sequence of events that have shaped her as the person she has become.

These are dominated by the men in her life: her father and brothers, her husband, her two sons. Her mother, dead in childbirth, is an unknown, commemorated in the novel as a sightless stone angel in a cemetery overlooking the town of Manawaka, where Hagar’s father is a merchant and storekeeper.

Against his wishes, Hagar marries a widowed homesteader, Bram (cf. Abraham) Shipley, and gives birth to two sons, one of whom, John, she much prefers to the other. Aching for independence, she leaves Bram, taking John with her westward to a housekeeping job for a wealthy man in Vancouver.

Theme. Independence, however, has its disappointments, as John returns in time to live with his ailing father, and in her old age Hagar finds herself caught between her well-meaning son, Marvin, and his feather-brained, querulous wife Doris, who is pressuring Marvin to put Hagar in a nursing home. The overall arc of the novel concerns Hagar’s life-long desire for independence—for herself and her favorite son—gradually eroding as accident and circumstance take their toll.

While reading The Stone Angel, I was often reminded of Horton Foote’s play, The Trip to Bountiful, brilliantly brought to the screen by Geraldine Page and John Heard in 1985. Both women have been betrayed by their expectations of life. But while Foote’s character struggles with the loss of independence, deepened by nostalgia for the past, Hagar remains flinty and judgmental. She is well defended behind a wall of self-regard—a stone angel herself.

This is not a theme specific to gender. We are used to seeing the need for freedom and independence as a driving force for men in the western novel and western movies, where its defense typically requires the use of firearms or fists. A woman’s version of that theme can play out very differently, but with the same urgency, as this fine, well-written novel demonstrates.

Margaret Laurence
Wrapping up. Canadian writer Margaret Laurence (1926-1987) wrote a series of novels set in fictional Manawaka, a town like her birthplace in Neepawa, Manitoba. A much-respected writer of Canadian fiction, she twice received the Governor General’s award, Canada’s highest literary honor. The Stone Angel was made into a film starring Ellen Burstyn in 2007.

The Stone Angel is currently available in print and audio formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, Powell’s Books, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Image credits:
Author’s photo,
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction


  1. I am glad that you are finding and reviewing these treasures. The remaining publishers of commercial westerns simply won't buy or publish stories of this sort. The commercial western field is now narrower than at any time I can remember, and virtually all stories are resolved with a gun. I have an unpublished novel that is languishing, and I have little hope for it because the protagonist is a woman.

  2. Thanks for the tip on this one, Ron. I love THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, so that may be enough for me to buy it.

  3. She is just one of my favorites, Ron. Great review as always.

  4. It also brought to mind THE DOLLMAKER by Harriet Arnow. Another wonderful book about a strong woman.

  5. These stories of strong pioneer women remind me of the tough life my mother had. Given up at the age of 14 to care for my father's baby whose mother died in childbirth, married to my father at 16, attended only three or four years of school, and had eight children of her own, the last in 1938, she was the typical homebody, but always wanted a different life of independence and freedom to travel and do other things besides housework and taking care of kids. She passed on at 82 in the 1970's. Enjoyed the review, Ron.

    1. An amazing story that shouldn't be lost. Thanks, Oscar. Her life sounds like that of the women in Montana writer Mary Clearman Blew's family memoir, ALL BUT THE WALTZ.

  6. Good we have some of this kind of literature. I, of course, like the adventure aspects, but there is certainly more to western history than that and too much has been ignored.

  7. I remember my surprise, some twenty years ago, in coming across the University of Chicago edition pictured in a Manhattan bookstore. Surprise, because Margaret Laurence was such a towering figure in Canadian literature - right up there with Atwood, the other Margaret. In Canada Laurence's novels, invariably bestsellers, were taught in high school and university. Still are. Such was Laurence's stature that I'd assumed she was one of those Canadian writers, like Munro, Davies and Richler, that was published by the big American houses. University of Chicago?

    At the controversial 1978 Calgary Conference on the Canadian Novel, academics selected The Stone Angel as the country's best. 'Twas a bit silly, but it does give one an idea of, again, her stature. I've never held Laurence quite so high. That said, she was beyond a doubt one of the best Canadian writers of her generation. I recommend A Jest of God (1966), adapted for the screen as Paul Newman-directed Rachel, Rachel. Come to think of it, I recommend the film, too!

    1. U. of Chgo. I noticed that, too, Brian. Thanks for the tips. Her THE DIVINERS is next on my list. A Canadian novelist I have read with some ambivalence is Robertson Davies.

  8. You'd be glad to know Ron that Laurence is a prescribed author in a few Indian universities too. I remember reading this and The Diviners (which I thought was much influenced by Mulk Raj Anand's The Untouchable) many years ago. Perhaps it is time to take a relook.