KfC’s 2013 Project: The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence

Personal collection

Personal collection

The memory journey that is the story line of The Diviners begins when Morag Gunn awakes in her Southeastern Ontario log home to find a note from her 18-year-old daughter, Pique, on the kitchen table. It opens “now please do not get uptight, Ma” — Pique has left and is headed West.

The note is like the flipping of a mental light switch to “on” inside Morag’s own head. Now 47, it sparks a memory of Morag’s own youthful departure from Manawaka, Manitoba — only she headed east, not west. It starts with a curiosity about the present: “Would Pique go to Manawaka? If she did, would she find anything there which would have meaning for her?”

That in turn sends Morag off on a search of her house which sets her journey in motion: pulling out six photographs from her own first five years.

These photographs from the past never agreed to get lost. Odd because she had tried hard enough, over the years, to lose them, or thought she had. She had treated them carelessly, shoved them away in seldom-opened suitcases or in dresser drawers filled with discarded underwear, scorning to put them into anything as neat as an album. They were jammed any-old-how into an ancient tattered manila envelope that Christie had given her once when she was a kid, and which said McVitie & Pearl, Barristers and Solicitors, Manawaka, Manitoba. Christie must have found it at the dump — the Nuisance Grounds, as they were known; what an incredible name, when you thought of the implications.

I’ve kept them, of course, because something in me doesn’t want to lose them, or perhaps doesn’t dare. Perhaps they’re my totems, or contain a portion of my spirit. Yeh, and perhaps they are exactly what they seem to be — a jumbled mess of old snapshots which I’ll still be lugging along with me when I’m an old lady, clutching them as I enter or am shoved into the Salvation Army Old People’s home or wherever it is that I’ll find my death.

Those two paragraphs are effectively a “mission statement” for The Diviners, so let’s fill in just a bit of the detail. Those six snapshots (each of which get described in some detail and context early in the novel) are all that remains from Morag’s life with her biological parents, both of whom died when she was five. Young Morag is adopted by Christie and Prin Logan, who raise her — Christie is the town “scavenger” (rubbish remover) and the Nuisance Grounds is the Manawaka name for the local garbage dump.

All of that is told in some small level of introductory detail in the novel’s short opening section, “River of Now and Then”. The Diviners is a recollection of a life lived, or at least almost half a century of a life lived. The bulk of the novel (which does weigh in at a fairly hefty 450 pages in the New Canadian Library paperback published in 1978 which is in my collection) comes in three sections:

  • “The Nuisance Grounds” is the story of Morag’s growth into young adulthood, the experience of growing up with Christie and Prin. Christie may just be a scavenger but he is a natural oral historian — his stories of Piper Gunn leading the Scots onto the ship headed to the New World, their arrival on the shores of Hudson Bay and eventual relocation to southern Manitoba are etched indelibly in Morag’s mind. As are the stories he tells of the Metis, the ancestors of the family of Jules “Skinner” Tonnerre, a childhood acquaintance of Morag’s who fathers Pique in a one-night stand and then shows up all too infrequently later in her life. Laurence is also adept throughout this section at bringing into sharp focus the day-to-day life (with all the inherent small-town prejudices) of a rural community.
  • “Halls of Sion” begins with Morag’s “escape” from the repression she feels in Manawaka — she heads off to college in Winnipeg, takes up with and marries one of her professors and ends up moving with him to Toronto. Brooke Skelton (whom we are told in a present-day section has just become a university president) is not a bad man, but he is a traditional one. For Morag, the repression of the small town in this decade of her life is replaced by the repression of a “small-minded” spouse who confines her growth just as much as the town did, albeit in a totally different way. It closes when she flees him — for that one-night stand with Skinner Tonnerre.
  • “Rites of Passage” is the story of the development of the mature Morag, who in the present tense of the narrative is the successful author of five novels. It starts with her relocation to Vancouver (if you have not guessed, Morag’s response to stress is starting all over again somewhere else) as a single mother, includes a stint in London and eventually leads to the purchase of the riverside log house in Southeastern Ontario where Morag is living as she goes through this memory journey.
  • Those who know Margaret Laurence’s work are probably wondering: when is KfC going to get to the real back story? So here you are. Margaret Laurence, whose parents died when she was four, wrote this novel at age 47 when she was living in a cabin on the Otonabee River, just outside Peterborough in Southeastern Ontario. She was born and raised in Neepawa, Manitoba, attended college in Winnipeg, married early and lived in Vancouver and London before leaving her husband.

    Further, The Diviners — published in 1974, the present day of the novel itself — is her fifth and final novel and also book five in her “Manawaka cycle”. The cycle includes four novels (The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966) and The Fire-Dwellers (1969) in addition to this volume) and one story collection, A Bird in the House (1970). Laurence herself described that collection as “fictionalized autobiography” — it is fair to say that applies to the entire cycle, with this novel in particular being the best example of her thoughts on the life she has lived.

    In his excellent introduction to the weathered NCL version that I read (and if you decide to buy the book, it is worth searching for a used copy of that edition because the introduction supplies much context — the more recent publication pictured at the top of this review features an afterword from Timothy Findley), academic and critic David Staines suggests The Diviners is in the tradition of Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (1971) and Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976) as an exploration of the development of an artist:

    Such portraits of the Canadian writer are a testimony to the self-consciousness and maturity of contemporary Canadian fiction. [It should be noted that Staines wrote the introduction in 1978 — we have come some way since then.] Like these Canadian novels The Diviners belongs in the long tradition of the Bildungsroman, the novel that records the growth, education, and maturing of the individual. Following the pattern of other celebrated members of this tradition, most notably Dickens’ David Copperfield and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Laurence’s novel focuses on the familiar and social environments that surround the young writer. In reliving her past Morag recounts the stages of her artistic growth, and it is not coincidental that “The Nuisance Grounds” ends with her employment on the local newspaper, “Halls of Sion” ends with the public reaction to her first novel, and “Rites of Passage” ends with the completion of her most recent novel, Shadow of Eden.

    I would add another historical element: you don’t have to be an avid feminist to appreciate that the The Diviners is a stunning example of the development not just of a writer, but most particularly a female writer. Throughout my latest reading of the novel, I was struck by how often I was comparing it to Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, the second novel I reviewed in this project, and another example of a woman’s struggle to realize her potential in the twentieth century, even if Shields’ novel appeared almost two decades later.

    While I think Laurence’s reputation remains large with Canadian readers, I don’t think she has captured the international attention of Richler, Munro and Atwood (or even Shields). Following this reread, I am convinced she deserves it — while some aspects of The Diviners do show its age, Morag Gunn is as complete a fictional character (however autobiographical she may by) as any reader could demand.

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    7 Responses to “KfC’s 2013 Project: The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence”

    1. Sandra Says:

      Hi, Kevin
      I’m glad to read your take on The Diviners. It might spur me onto finish reading it. I started reading The Diviners when it was first published and left off somewhere in the middle. At the time Margaret Laurence was my favourite author. Somehow this book didn’t live up to my expectations of the author. Either that or Hagar Shipley was still too close in my memory. Stone Angel remains as one of my most memorable books and Margaret Laurence is still a favoured author.
      Thank you for your review,and revisit, of this book.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I’d say that The Diviners probably has more impact on readers who are old enough to be able to empathize with Morag’s decision to look back on her life. While there is quite a cast of characters in the novel, there is no doubt that it is “Morag’s” book — but from inside her own mind rather than the central characters in the other Manawaka novels. I’d certainly say it is worth trying again.

    2. Elizabeth Thomas Says:

      Thanks so much, Kevin, for such a well structured and informative review. I read The Diviners about 6 years ago and it’s a delight to be reminded of what an important work it is. I also loved The Stone Diaries, and just tonight I’m choosing between The Dud Avocado and Clara Callan, leaning more towards the Wright after reading this.

    3. Kate Says:

      I read the Manawaka books the summer I was 17 – I did not like The Stone Angel, and if I had had access to any other books at that point, I doubt if I would have continued the series. But circumstances were otherwise, and I enjoyed each book more than the previous until I quite loved The Diviners. I re-read both The Stone Angel and The Diviners a few years ago. I found that in my mid-30s I had more of an appreciation for The Stone Angel (which my sister calls Ramblings of a Bitter Old Woman), but I fell in love with Morag and her story and I now count The Diviners among my favourite books of all time.
      My review of The Stone Angel re-read: http://katesbookcase.blogspot.ca/2011/10/stone-angel-margaret-laurence.html
      My review of The Diviners re-read: http://katesbookcase.blogspot.ca/2010/08/diviners-margaret-laurence.html

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        My most recent exposure to The Stone Angel was the play version — I was on the board of Alberta Theatre Projects some years back and saw the production they did several times. In some ways, it has an advantage over the novel — the actress who plays Hagar does get to put some humanity into the character.

        One thing I did think about while reading The Diviners this time was how relatively young Laurence was when she wrote these novels (I’m at an age where anyone under 50 is young). I too was young when I read them the first time so she seemed “old” to me then — but now I wonder how (and to some extent why) she chose such mature (and sometimes bitter) characters. Even on this read, I had to keep reminding myself that Morag is “only” 47 because she often seemed much, much older as she looked back.

        • Kate Says:

          Interesting to note the perspective of age. I am just over a decade younger than Morag, and even though my life is very different than hers, she is a character that I can completely relate with. When I read this book, I *am* Morag. I guess that this is a sign of a strongly written character.

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