October 26, 2011

The Stone Angel - Margaret Laurence

For this year's Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set, I'm trying to re-read 13 Canadian Books from my past. I'm a bit behind schedule, but here is my second contribution.

Book: The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence (point of interest - my first re-read for this challenge also had angels in the title - The Rebel Angels)

First Read: I can be quite specific here - it was the summer of 1994, between grade 12 and 13. I had received a French language bursery and spent 6 weeks in the town of Rivière-du-Loup, living with a family and taking courses at the local CEGEP. I had limited access to English books, so read everything that I had packed in my suitcase, including the 4 Manawaka books.

Original Impressions: I didn't like it. In fact, if I hadn't had such limited book access that summer, I probably wouldn't have read the rest of the series. But I did read all of them, and found each book better than the one before, until I came to the last book, The Diviners, which I quite enjoyed.

Current Impressions: I re-read The Diviners a year or so ago and absolutely loved it, so I thought that this book was probably worth a re-read. I was staying with my sister last week, and she noticed that I was reading The Stone Angel and asked why I wanted to read the ramblings of a bitter old woman (note - she had to read it for school, while I first read it of my own free will and never had to study it). I certainly enjoyed it more than I did the first time around, but I wouldn't count it as one of my all-time favourites - I didn't click with Hagar the way that I did with Morag in The Diviners.

Hagar is a 90 year old woman who, as she approaches death, reflects back on her mostly unhappy life. She grew up as the only daughter of a relatively well-off merchant in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka. She married against her father's wishes and discovered that she wasn't happy in marriage. She became estranged from her elder son; left her husband; and then lost her younger son. She ends up lonely and resentful, living with her elder son and his wife. Come to think of it, my sister wasn't too far off calling Hagar a bitter old woman!

But really, it is a story of pride and ultimately redemption. Hagar realizes, close to the end of her life, that, "pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched." She reflects, "I must always, always, have wanted... simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? ... Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances - oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart's truth?"

So I like to think that Hagar found redemption in the end and was able to leave her bitterness aside.

It was a much more enjoyable read now than it was 17 years ago; as I can see more meaning and purpose in the story of Hagar's life. I look forward to re-reading the rest of the Manawaka books.

Regarding the cover - I was reading my mother's copy which she purchased for $1.95 in the late '60s (I suspect). The McClelland and Stewart website has 3 different editions for sale (I picked my favourite cover for this post), the cheapest of which, an e-book, sells for 12.95!


John Mutford said...

I loved the two Laurence's that I've read (Diviners and Bird in the House), but everyone who I've met who doesn't like her writing always blames it on The Stone Angel. I'm reluctant to read it because of that, but maybe, like you and reading as a mature adult , I'll at least respect it?

Kate said...

John - reading this book now, I think that it is probably the last book that should be forced upon high school students to study. Yes, it is full of things that high school teachers love - imagery, layering of the story, symbolism, character development etc. Yes, it is a very well written book (exactly what one would expect from Margaret Laurence). But what 17 or 18 year old wants to read the ramblings of a "bitter old woman"? I suspect that is the reason why people blame The Stone Angel for a dislike of Margaret Laurence - they were probably forced to read and study it at a time in their life when it had no ability to speak to them. Give it a try - I found it a very compelling read this time around - sad and somewhat depressing at times, but hard to put down.

Buried In Print said...

I can't explain it...because I know it doesn't seem like a good fit for high school students and I know you're not alone in having had it ruined for you by that experience of it...but I loved this in the twelfth grade and I loved it when I re-read it last year (the film was quite well done too, IMO). But I do agree that in terms of feeling a connection, it was The Diviners that cinched that for me. (I think I can picture the $1.95 edition you're talking about...with the woman's face?)

Kate said...

BiP - no - different cover. The one I was reading is "New Canadian Library" with some abstract art on the cover. Looks vaguely like a thunderbird or a butterfly or something.
I guess that everyone has a different reading of the book - and isn't it great that everyone can read a book differently?