A warm and moving family tale
AT THE start of Margaret Laurence’s 1964 novel The Stone Angel, Hagar Currie’s father asks her if she remembers the family war cry. “Gainsay Who Dare!” she shouts, with the ferocity of an enraged clansman. The Curries, her father tells her, were Highlanders. Recalling her childhood, Hagar can still hear her father’s “Scots burr” as he stands behind the counter of his store in the Canadian frontier town of Manawaka, Manitoba.
One of the few traits Hagar inherits from him is a fierce character and “a stare that could meet anyone’s without blinking an eyelash”. Hagar, our unpredictable narrator, is 90 years old when she starts becoming “rampant with memory” and telling us her story; those around her still quail at the thought of opposing her.
Hagar lives with her son Marvin and daughter-in-law Doris, both of whom are concerned that ‘Mother’ is losing her mind. We only learn of their concerns when Hagar is caught unawares by the present appearing in her thoughts of the past, which happens in a disorientating and abrupt manner, like someone bursting into the room whilst you’re engrossed in a particularly good book.
We learn that Hagar has had a quiet and brutal life, filled with the slow death of her family. Her aspiration is to be a teacher, but her father forces her into domestic servitude. In defiance of him, and mostly to spite him, she marries a local farmer, an alcoholic called Brampton Shipley. After having two children, she leaves him, and he slowly wilts away.
It sounds bleak, but Hagar’s character lifts your spirits in unexpected ways. She is an irascible woman, simultaneously mean-spirited and immensely likeable. Marvin wants to convince Hagar to move to a care home, and sweetens her up with Doris’s walnut cake. Hagar soon catches on: “Now I see the reason for the spread table. Am I a calf, to be fattened? Oh, had I known I would not have eaten a bit of her damnable walnuts and icing”. In between delicious scenes of humour and pathos, Laurence paints a vivid and lasting portrait of the landscape and people of Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Despite her harsh opinions of her kith and kin, Hagar maintains an odd allegiance to the family line. The stone angel of the title watches over their cemetery plot, which Hagar insists is kept respectable.
Perhaps it is that old Highlander in her, who rarely asks “how are you?” and always “where are you from?” Even when she is close to losing her mind completely, waiting for, and denying, the end, she is happy to retell her family story to strangers. It creates some meaning in a Godless and absurd world.
One day she escapes her home and finds herself in a stone hut near the coast, telling a local drunk about the death of her second son, John. The pair then sink into silence and “listen for the terrible laughter of God, but can only hear the vapid chuckling of the sea.”
Margaret Laurence paints a vivid and lasting portrait of the landscape and people of Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century