CanLit Canon Review #17: Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

Stone Angel FRONT

It’s the day after you finish it, when you’re tying your shoes and see it on the coffee table, that you realize The Stone Angel has done something to you, that it’s now a part of your life. You see the book, beaten up from your hours of reading, and you realize that Hagar Shipley, the nonagenarian protagonist, is one of the few great and fully realized characters of Canadian literature, alongside Duddy Kravitz and…well, that’s it.

She is, in the pages of Margaret Laurence’s 1964 masterpiece, so fully real that you feel her pain when she grieves her dead son, her sadness when she remembers her hate-filled marriage, and her fear as her world shrinks and the end nears.

The only thing you never feel with Hagar Shipley is joy. This was her sex life:

“Yet when he turned his hairy belly and his black-haired thighs toward me in the night, I would lie silent but waiting, and he could slither and swim like an eel in a pool of darkness. Sometimes, if there had been no argument between us in the day, he would say he was sorry, sorry to bother me, as though it were an affliction with him, something that set him apart, as his speech did, from educated people.”

Just as Hagar’s life is joyless, the book, embracing the young tradition of prairie literature, is joyless. But it’s joyless, also in the prairie tradition, in an exquisite way:

“The prairie had a hushed look. Rippled dust lay across the fields. The square frame houses squatted exposed, drabber than before, and some of the windows were boarded over like bandaged eyes. Barbed wire fences had tippled flimsily and not been set to rights. The Russian thistle flourished, emblem of want, and farmers cut it and fed it to their lean cattle. The crows still cawed, and overhead the telephone wires still twanged all up and down the washboard roads. Yet nothing was the same at all.”

The book is a stream-of-consciousness trip through the final days of angry and mean Hagar Shipley as she rebels against her son and daughter-in-law. They want to put her in a seniors’ home, but Hagar won’t have it. She runs away, or, rather, shuffles slowly away, to live in an abandoned cannery. Through these final days, her life—a history inhibited by fear and pride—flashes before her eyes until she finally realizes what she missed:

“This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly, and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must always, always, have wanted that—simply to rejoice. How is it I never could?”

This is a brilliant novel carried by a single character, and it is a story so well told it becomes a part of you, so that every time you’re reminded of Hagar her many sorrows jolt through you like a shock.