Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 2009, pp. 334-335
Neil Besner is right to judge Nora Foster Stovel's Divining highly: it "ranges across all of Laurence's work ... intelligently and accessibly," as he says on the jacket. Before I augment his praise I must note a couple of blemishes, if Stovel will accept the soft impeachment of an admirer. Malcolm Ross did not teach the future Margaret Laurence or anyone else at United College (now the University of Winnipeg): I was a student with Peggy Wemyss in Ross's stunning "Seventeenth-Century Thought" on the Fort Garry campus of the University of Manitoba (and in spite of the uncorrected typo of photo #18, following p. 124, of my Alien Heart: The Life and Work of Margaret Laurence ).
More serious, Stovel repeats Donez Xiques's misreading (in Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer ) of Laurence's early and impressive poem "Pagan Point," where one notes the evident opposition of the "unearthly paganism" of "Old Neptune ... and the ancient battle-voice of Thor" to what replaced them. Peggy's pagan gods are associated with "the cry, / raucous and heathen, of a far-off loon," anticipating the loons heard by Piquette in A Bird in the House. Piquette belongs to the family Tonnerre (some Canadiens recognize that as the family of Thor) and "might have been the only one, after all, who had heard the crying of the loons," also heard by Allie Chorniuk in "Dance on the Earth" who thinks "but tonight their voices are silent"-Homo sapiens "is driving them away from the lakes, or killing them off . .. The thought ... hurts unbearably" (quoted in Alien Heart, 449). The opposition here (which Stovel discerns) is also that of "Pagan Point": "the raucous and heathen loon" versus the "dim cathedral-full of rest, .... where Man may [sic] find his God." This is like the opposition to Tennyson's meek and mild Lotos Eaters posed by Ulysses, whose aim was echoed in the motto of Peggy Wemyss's high school: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." The attitude of Blake ("Was Jesus gentle ... ?"), was familiar as well to Hagar's creator. This misreading is almost as regrettable as identifying "Henry James's definition of the novel as a loose, baggy monster" (Divining, 247), a phrase James used in his preface to The Tragic Muse as a critique of certain novels, not as a definition of the genre.