“Walking down to the river across the meadow of unmown grass, Morag realized what it was that was different about this day. It had been at the back of her mind since early morning, but she had not really seen it until now. There were no swallows. Yesterday the air had been filled with their swiftness. Now there were none. How did they know when to leave and why did they migrate all at once, every one of them? No stragglers, no members of the clan who had an imperfect sense of time and season. Here yesterday, gone today. There might be a reason, but she would just as soon not know”.
As part of the Goodreads September group read for the CanadianContent group, I have enjoyed the slow cadence of The Diviners by the late Margaret Laurence. Laurence was a revered Canadian author who was on banned book lists, read as part of school curriculums and enjoyed across the country. The Stone Angel was part of my high school reading list and although I did not appreciate the story as a teenager, I have enjoyed this story of aging as an adult.
The Diviners is the last book in her Manawaka series. It was written in 1974 and begins as the middle-aged Morag reflects on old photographs from her childhood while she comes to terms with the fact that her daughter has left home. Morag’s own childhood had been challenging – her young parents had both tragically died leaving her to live with Christie and Prin, a poor but kind couple who took her in. Christie was a scavenger, collecting refuse for the community to dispose of at the nuisance yards. A quiet man, he had a great knowledge about his community which he divined from the refuse he collected. Morag was an outsider at school due to Christie’s role in the community, taunted for her dresses and grew up lonely. She befriended Jules “Skinner” Tonnere and he was part of her life, on his own terms, coming and going through the years. Morag fled Manawaka as soon as she could, running away from the town and her history, leaving her adopted family behind.
I found it surprising that this book was banned. I can only surmise that the fact that Morag’s choice to be a single mother and her relationship with Skinner Tonnerre, who was Metis, might have been challenging text in the 1970s. Perhaps leaving her professor husband and having sex outside of marriage was another reason the story was banned although this certainly would not be surprising text in this day and age!
The book remains current today. The story dealt with the topic of indigenous peoples being referred to as “half breeds” at a time when conversations are changing the vocabulary used to describe indigenous peoples. Her daughter Pique, is trying to find herself, to learn about her heritage after experiencing prejudice at school in a small town. The challenges of teens try to find themselves and the corresponding struggle of mothers to accept their children’s growing freedom, as they fledge the nest, remains a current issue.
It is easy to see some of the inspiration for The Diviners in Margaret Laurence’s own history. She was born in Manitoba and lost her own parents at a young age before moving in with her grandfather. She studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature before marrying and travelling to England and Africa before settling in BC with her daughter and son. After separating from her husband she spent time in England and bought a cabin in Lakefield, Ontario where she wrote The Diviners. Like her character, Laurence was a smoker and when she was diagnosed with lung cancer she took her own life leaving behind a legacy of novels, non-fiction and children’s literature.
Laurence was a beautiful storyteller, layering details and storylines while engaging the reader more fully into her text as the pages turn. She wrote about family, about love, about loss and about living in a touching way the describes the challenges of every day life. Although published in 1974, this book remains current and I will be interested to reread The Stone Angel, delve into the remainder of the Manawaka series and read her memoir, Dance on the Earth which is in my growing to be read pile.