Red Deer College instructor and author Laura Davis holds a copy of what her new book titled Margaret Laurence Writes Africa And Canada will look like when it is published this August.

Putting Margaret Laurence in the spotlight

Before Alice Munro started writing realistically about the lives of girls and women, Margaret Laurence was pioneering the same subject while helping put CanLit onto the world map.

Before Alice Munro started writing realistically about the lives of girls and women, Margaret Laurence was pioneering the same subject while helping put CanLit onto the world map.

Back in about 1979, I was among a handful of English class keeners who were taken by our teacher to see Laurence during a meet-and-greet session in Winnipeg.

As we were ushered into her presence we noticed that Laurence looked exactly as unglamorous as in her dust jacket photos.

She wasn’t exactly stern, but came across as reticent and serious while observing us from behind her giant glasses. Laurence would smile slightly or make an appreciative utterance whenever an exuberant student from our group spoke admiringly of her work.

When it was my turn to say something, I told Laurence I particularly liked her book The Stone Angel because its central character, Hagar Shipley, reminded me of my grandmother.

Laurence looked at me strangely. A question flickered across her face — did I really understand the hard, self-defeating Hagar, who robbed herself of joy through stubborn pride?

I wanted to tell Laurence that I did understand.

My hardboiled Serbian grandmother, who married the wrong man at the age of 16 to spite her parents and lived in a state of bitter remorselessness, was more like Hagar than any standard-issue granny depicted on TV.

But Laurence’s attention was soon diverted by another student, and those words were left unsaid.

The austere spectre of Hagar Shipley retreated back into the pages of The Stone Angel, and the book itself would slip off many high school reading lists over the next 35 years.

Since her death in 1987, Laurence’s star seems to have dimmed somewhat as her novels and short stories — once targeted for parental protest because of swear words and other content — become overshadowed by newer, flashier examples of Canadian literature.

But Laura Davis, a Red Deer College English instructor, hopes to put the focus back on Laurence through two new publications she’s working on about the author.

This spring, Davis’s Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada will be published by Wilfred Laurier University Press. Davis is also working on a second publication, with Bishop’s University instructor Linda Morra, that will examine the letters exchanged by Laurence and her friend and publisher, the late Jack McClelland.

To Davis, the Manitoba-born author remains a major Canadian literary figure who deserves to have her works read by new generations.

“She was writing about the Canadian Prairies at a time when not many other people were writing good books about the Prairies. …” Besides “speaking about a culture that was ours,” Davis credited Laurence with creating female characters who were complicated, flawed, courageous survivors before the women’s movement went mainstream.

“She wasn’t just writing about the good wife. … Her works were very character-driven, and she wrote about these multifaceted, complex people,” said Davis, who was turned on to the author at a young age after receiving a copy of Laurence’s children’s book, The Olden Days Coat, from her mother.

By Grade 10, she was reading Laurence’s adult novels, the most acclaimed of which are set in the fictitious town of Manawaka (based on Laurence’s real hometown of Neepawa, Man.): The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House and The Diviners.

Laurence remained of special interest to Davis after she became an English major at university. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Alberta, published articles and reviews on Canadian literature, and co-authored the textbook, Essay Writing for Canadian Students, with Readings.

It was Davis’s PhD dissertation on Laurence that became the basis of her upcoming book, Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada. She believes it will be the first book to examine how Laurence felt about colonization while living in Somalia and Ghana in the 1950s, and how these same sensibilities emerged in Laurence’s later writing about English Canada in 1960s and 1970s.

By focusing on Laurence’s published works, and unpublished letters, Davis hopes to draw parallels between Laurence’s uneasiness about biased attitudes expressed toward Africans and her depictions of minority and disenfranchised characters in her Canadian novels.

Laurence “felt uncomfortable at being looked upon as a colonist’s wife” while living in British Somaliland with her engineer husband, said Davis.

“She wanted to distinguish herself from the English population there. She wanted people to know she was Canadian and her beliefs were different.”

First Nations and Métis characters were sympathetically portrayed in her novels, and Davis feels Lawrence did not gloss over social problems surrounding these minority groups. For instance, the Tonnerre family of Red River Métis that Laurence links to Louis Riel in her Manawaka books suffers from a troubled history and racist community judgment, and these things contribute to the downfall of several characters.

Regardless of their ethnicity, the Canadians Laurence created in her novels are not quite members of their ancestral cultures, yet are also not truly “native” to their nation, said Davis. She hopes her Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada will show how these characters struggle with ideas of “self” and “nation,” and how this holds significant implications for Canadians and this country.

By tying together Laurence’s African and Canadian writings, Davis hopes to highlight how the author helped conceptualize Canadian culture as a mosaic that’s in constant flux.

In the end, Laurence was a product of her time. Davis noted her popularity as a CanLit author rose during the Pierre Trudeau years, when the former prime minister was also seeking to create a multicultural nation.

But “there was so much more to her than met the eye,” said Davis, who discovered some new facets through joint research with Morra on a second book that will examine Laurence’s correspondence with her longtime publisher Jack McClelland.

Some 400 letters written between 1959 and 1986 were pulled from Laurence’s literary archives at York and McMaster universities for this project (which doesn’t yet have a publication date). Davis is excited because some of the letters have never been published or even critically examined.

Through this correspondence, Laurence reveals concerns about nuclear weapons, her hopes for women’s rights, and finding sources of sustainable energy. The biggest surprise is her humour, said Davis. “She was really funny and it’s the kind of humour that doesn’t come out the same way in her books.”

McClelland offers Laurence advice on her writing, as well as his respect and friendship. “Jack was quite a character and she was so blunt with him. They had such a strong friendship, so dynamic and interesting,” said Davis.

One of the things the two didn’t agree on was Laurence’s commitment to the Writers’ Union of Canada, which she helped start.

She was serious about it, while McClelland saw it as more of a social outlet, said Davis.

“He did say to her he didn’t see a purpose for it beyond a social purpose.”

Sometimes delving deeply into the life of someone you admire turns up disappointment. In this case, Davis said her exhaustive research into Laurence left her feeling more appreciative of the author’s clear-eyed vision.

“She was a realist.”

When people angrily rallied to ban Laurence’s books from schools because of their profane or objectionable content, Davis said the author responded with “well, there’s a seedy side to life. I’m not going to hide it, but show it like it is.”

Whether her characters were negative and prickly, like Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel, or reviled underdogs, like refuse collector Christie Logan in The Diviners, Laurence always endeavoured to make them human.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

Keaton Wildeboer, of Lacombe, participates in the Westerner Championship Dairy Showcase at Westerner Park on Thursday. More than 150 cattle will be on display at the event, which continues until Saturday, carrying on a tradition started in 1954. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Western Canada’s first dairy showcase since last fall begins in Red Deer

Western Canada’s first dairy showcase since last fall is currently being held… Continue reading

Car thief opening stolen car doors. 
(Black Press File Image)
Idling vehicles attracting thieves, RCMP warns

About one-third of stolen vehicles left idling unattended

Police reveal a collection of drugs, cash and guns seized in an April 2016 bust. One of the men charged was sentenced to 27 months in prison on Thursday.
Advocate file photo
Red Deer man sentenced to 27 months for role in “dial-a-dope” operation

RCMP Priority Crimes Task Force broke up drug operation in April 2016 after four-month investigation

Red Deer RCMP say a 30-year-old man faces sexual charges against a teen. (File photo by Advocate staff)
RCMP’s downtown traffic stops lead to charges

Two traffic stops conducted by Red Deer RCMP officers on bike patrol… Continue reading

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives for an announcement at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.	Kenney is isolating at home after one of his ministers tested positive for COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Alberta premier isolating after minister tests positive for COVID-19

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is isolating at home

New York Giants' Evan Engram (88) tumbles after trying to leap over Philadelphia Eagles' Cre'Von LeBlanc (34) as Josh Sweat (94) defends during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)
Carson Wentz rallies Eagles to 22-21 win over Giants

Carson Wentz rallies Eagles to 22-21 win over Giants

North Carolina State safety Jakeen Harris (6) tackles Virginia wide receiver Terrell Jana (13) during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va. Jana's last name doesn't appear on the back of his Virginia Cavaliers football jersey as a tribute to enslaved labourers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, The Daily Progress, Erin Edgerton
Canadian receiver Jana’s name missing from jersey to honour enslaved labourers

Canadian receiver Jana’s name missing from jersey to honour enslaved labourers

Tiger Woods hits from the 11th tee during the first round of the Zozo Championship golf tournament Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Munoz in the lead and Woods with his worst score at Sherwood

Munoz in the lead and Woods with his worst score at Sherwood

The national anthem is performed ahead of the inaugural soccer match of the Canadian Premier League between Forge FC of Hamilton and York 9 in Hamilton, Ont. Saturday, April 27, 2019. Canadian Premier League champion Forge FC takes on El Salvador's CD Municipal Limeno in a CONCACAF League preliminary-round match Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Lynett
Forge FC scores late to win CONCACAF League preliminary-round game in El Salvador

Forge FC scores late to win CONCACAF League preliminary-round game in El Salvador

NHL cancels 2021 Minnesota Winter Classic, All-Star Weekend

NHL cancels 2021 Minnesota Winter Classic, All-Star Weekend

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2020, file photo, Mariah Bell performs her senior women's free skate program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in Greensboro, N.C. When U.S. skaters and a few foreigners training in this country kick off the season at Skate America this weekend, it could be a rare opportunity to display their wares. So they will relish the chance to get on the ice for competition, knowing that two Grand Prix series events and the Grand Prix Final have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and prospects of national and word championships being held are uncertain.(AP Photo/Lynn Hey, File)
Skate America opens shortened, coronavirus-impacted season

Skate America opens shortened, coronavirus-impacted season

Kang, Song share lead in LPGA Drive On Championship

Kang, Song share lead in LPGA Drive On Championship

Vegas Golden Knights' Alec Martinez (23) is checked by Vancouver Canucks' Jake Virtanen (18) during first period NHL Western Conference Stanley Cup playoff action in Edmonton on August 23, 2020. The Canucks have signed Virtanen to a two-year contract with an average annual value of US$2.55 million. Virtanen had 36 points and 41 penalty minutes in 69 games in the 2019-20 season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Forward Jake Virtanen signs new two-year deal with hometown Vancouver Canucks

Forward Jake Virtanen signs new two-year deal with hometown Vancouver Canucks

Most Read