Stone Angelby Margaret Laurence
The Stone Angel, The Diviners, and A Bird in the House are three of the five books in Margaret Laurence's renowned "Manawaka series," named for the small Canadian prairie town in which they take place. Each of these books is narrated by a strong woman growing up in the town and struggling with physical and emotional isolation. A Jest of God and The Fire Dwellers, the two other books in the series, will be published in the Fall of 1993. In The Stone Angel, Hagar Shipley, age ninety, tells the story of her life, and in doing so tries to come to terms with how the very qualities which sustained her have deprived her of joy. Mingling past and present, she maintains pride in the face of senility, while recalling the life she led as a rebellious young bride, and later as a grieving mother. Laurence gives us in Hagar a woman who is funny,infuriating and heartbreakingly poignant. "It is [Laurence's] admirable achievement to strike, with an equally sure touch, the peculiar note and the universal; she gives us a portrait of a remarkable character and at the same time the picture of old age itself, with the pain, the weariness, the terror, the impotent angers and physical mishaps, the realization that others are waiting and wishing for an end." -- Honor Tracy, The New Republic
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The Stone Angel
By Margaret Laurence
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1964 Margaret Laurence
All rights reserved.
ABOVE THE TOWN, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother's angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.
Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless eyes. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all. But I was too young then to know her purpose, although my father often told me she had been brought from Italy at a terrible expense and was pure white marble. I think now she must have been carved in that distant sun by stone masons who were the cynical descendants of Bernini, gouging out her like by the score, gauging with admirable accuracy the needs of fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.
Her wings in winter were pitted by the snow and in summer by the blown grit. She was not the only angel in the Manawaka cemetery, but she was the first, the largest, and certainly the costliest. The others, as I recall, were a lesser breed entirely, petty angels, cherubim with pouting stone mouths, one holding aloft a stone heart, another strumming in eternal silence upon a small stone stringless harp, and yet another pointing with ecstatic leer to an inscription. I remember that inscription because we used to laugh at it when the stone was first placed there.
Rest in peace.
From toil, surcease.
So much for sad Regina, now forgotten in Manawaka—as I, Hagar, am doubtless forgotten. And yet I always felt she had only herself to blame, for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out. When Regina died, from some obscure and maidenly disorder, the old disreputable lady rose from sick-smelling sheets and lived, to the despair of her married sons, another full ten years. No need to say God rest her soul, for she must be laughing spitefully in hell, while virginal Regina sighs in heaven.
In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlor perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.
I used to walk there often when I was a girl. There could not have been many places to walk primly in those days, on paths, where white kid boots and dangling skirts would not be torn by thistles or put in unseemly disarray. How anxious I was to be neat and orderly, imagining life had been created only to celebrate tidiness, like prissy Pippa as she passed. But sometimes through the hot rush of disrespectful wind that shook the scrub oak and the coarse couchgrass encroaching upon the dutifully cared-for habitations of the dead, the scent of the cowslips would rise momentarily. They were tough-rooted, these wild and gaudy flowers, and although they were held back at the cemetery's edge, torn out by loving relatives determined to keep the plots clear and clearly civilized, for a second or two a person walking there could catch the faint, musky, dust-tinged smell of things that grew untended and had grown always, before the portly peonies and the angels with rigid wings, when the prairie bluffs were walked through only by Cree with enigmatic faces and greasy hair.
Now I am rampant with memory. I don't often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past—that's nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such people as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this—it's my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, "Mother's having one of her days." Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.
Oh, my lost men. No, I will not think of that. What a disgrace to be seen crying by that fat Doris. The door of my room has no lock. They say it is because I might get taken ill in the night, and then how could they get in to tend me (tend—as though I were a crop, a cash crop). So they may enter my room any time they choose. Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Sometimes very young children can look at the old, and a look passes between them, conspiratorial, sly and knowing. It's because neither are human to the middling ones, those in their prime, as they say, like beef.
I'd be about six, surely, when I had that plaid pinafore, pale green and pale red—not pink, a watery red, rather, like the flesh of a ripe watermelon, made by an aunt in Ontario and grandly piped in black velveteen. There was I, strutting the board sidewalk like a pint-sized peacock, resplendent, haughty, hoity-toity, Jason Currie's black-haired daughter.
Before I started school, I was such a nuisance to Auntie Doll. The big house was new then, the second brick house to be built in Manawaka, and she had the feeling always that she must live up to it, although she was hired help. She was a widow, and had been with us since my birth. She wore a white lace boudoir cap in the mornings, and shrilled at me like a witch when I tweaked it off, exposing her frizzled mop to the chortling eyes of Reuben Pearl who brought the milk. At such times she'd ship me off to the store, and there my father would sit me down on an empty upturned apple-box, amid the barrels of dried apricots and raisins and the smell of brown paper and sizing from the bolts of cloth in the dry goods section, and make me memorize weights and measures.
"Two glasses, one noggin. Four noggins, one pint. Two pints, one quart. Four quarts, one gallon. Two gallons, one peck. Four pecks, one bushel."
He'd stand there behind the counter, bulky and waist-coated, his voice with its Scots burr prompting me when I forgot, and telling me to concentrate or I'd never learn.
"Do you want to grow up to be a dummy, a daft loon?"
When I repeated them all through, Troy Weight, Long and Lineal Measure, Imperial Dry Measure, Cubic Measure, he'd nod.
Now you've got it."
That's all he'd ever say, when I got it right. He never believed in wasting a word or a minute. He was a self-made man. He had started without a bean, he was fond of telling Matt and Dan, and had pulled himself up by his bootstraps. It was true. No one could deny it. My brothers took after our mother, graceful unspirited boys who tried to please him but rarely could. Only I, who didn't want to resemble him in the least, was sturdy like him and bore his hawkish nose and stare that could meet anyone's without blinking an eyelash.
The devil finds work for idle hands. He put his faith in homilies. They were his Pater Noster, his Apostles' Creed. He counted them off like beads on a rosary, or coins in the till. God helps those who help themselves. Many hands make light work.
He always used birch for whippings. That's what had been used by his father on him, although in another country. I don't know what he'd have done if no birch had flourished around Manawaka. Luckily, our bluffs sprouted a few—they were thin and puny, and never grew to any height, but they served the purpose. Matt and Dan got the most of it, being boys and older, and when they did, they'd come and do to me as they'd been done to, only they used maple, green switches with the leaves still on. You wouldn't think those soft leaves would sting, but they did, on bare flanks still pudgy with baby fat, and I'd howl like the triple-mouthed beasts of hell, as much from shame as hurt, and they'd hiss that if I told they'd take the saw-toothed breadknife that hung in the pantry and open my throat and I'd bleed to death and be left empty and white as Hannah Pearl's stillborn baby that we'd seen at Simmons' Funeral Parlor in its white satin box. But when I'd heard Matt called "four eyes" at school, because he had to wear glasses, and Auntie Doll scold Dan because he'd wet his bed although he was past eight, then I knew they'd never dare, so I told. That put an end to it, and what they got served them right, and he let me watch. After, though, I was sorry I'd witnessed it, and tried to tell them so, but they wouldn't hear me out.
They didn't need to talk as though they were the only ones. I got it, too, although not often, I have to admit. Father took such a pride in the store—you'd have thought it was the only one on earth. It was the first in Manawaka, so I guess he had due cause. He would lean across the counter, spreading his hands, and smile so wonderfully you'd feel he welcomed the world.
Mrs. McVitie, the lawyer's wife, bonneted garishly, smiled back and asked for eggs. I remember so well it was eggs she asked for—brown ones, which she thought more nourishing than the white-shelled kind. And I, in black buttoned boots and detested mauve and beige striped stockings worn for warmth and the sensible long-sleeved navy-blue serge dress he ordered each year from the East, poked my nose into the barrel that housed the sultanas, intending to sneak a handful while he was busy.
"Oh, look! The funniest wee things, scampering—"
I laughed at them as they burrowed, the legs so quick and miniature you could hardly see them, delighted that they'd dare appear there and flout my father's mighty mustache and his ire.
"Mind your manners, miss!"
The swipe he caught me then was nothing to what I got in the back of the store after she'd left.
"Have you no regard for my reputation?"
"But I saw them!"
"Did you have to announce it from the housetops?"
"I didn't mean—"
"No good to say you're sorry when the damage is done. Hold out your hands, miss."
I wouldn't let him see me cry, I was so enraged. He used a foot ruler, and when I jerked my smarting palms back, he made me hold them out again. He looked at my dry eyes in a kind of fury, as though he'd failed unless he drew water from them. He struck and struck, and then all at once he threw the ruler down and put his arms around me. He held me so tightly I was almost smothered against the thick moth-ball-smelling roughness of his clothes. I felt caged and panicky and wanted to push him away, but didn't dare. Finally he released me. He looked bewildered, as though he wanted to explain but didn't know the explanation himself.
"You take after me," he said, as though that made everything clear. "You've got backbone, I'll give you that."
He sat down on a packing-case and took me on his knee.
"What you must realize," he said, speaking softly, hastily, "is that when I have to take the ruler to you, it hurts me just as much as it does you."
I'd heard that before, many times. But looking at him then from my dark bright eyes, I knew it was a barefaced lie. I did take after him, though—God knows he wasn't wrong in that.
I stood in the doorway, poised and ready to run.
"Are you going to throw them away?"
"The sultanas. Are you going to throw them away?"
"You mind your own business, miss," he snapped, "or I'll—"
Stifling my laughter and my tears, I turned and fled.
Quite a number of us started school that year. Charlotte Tappen was the doctor's daughter, and she had chestnut hair and was allowed to wear it loose, with a green bow, when Auntie Doll was still putting mine in braids. Charlotte and I were best friends, and used to walk to school together, and wonder what it would be like to be Lottie Drieser and not know where your father had got to, or even who he'd been. We never called Lottie "No-Name," though—only the boys did that. But we tittered at it, knowing it was mean, feeling a half-ashamed excitement, the same as I'd felt once seeing Telford Simmons not bothering to go to the boys' outhouse, doing it behind a bush.
Telford's father wasn't very highly regarded. He kept the Funeral Parlor but he never had a nickel to bless himself with. "He fritters away his cash," my father said, and after a while I learned this meant he drank. Matt told me once that Billy Simmons drank embalming fluid, and for a long time I believed it, and thought of him as a ghoul and used to hurry past him on the street, although he was gentle and shambling and used to give chocolate maplebuds to Telford to distribute to us all. Telford had curly hair and a slight stammer, and all he could find to brag about was the occasional corpse in the cool vault, and when we said we didn't believe he could really get in, he took us that time and showed us Henry Pearl's sister, the dead baby. We went in through the basement window, the whole gang of us, Telford leading. Then Lottie Drieser, tiny and light with yellow hair fine as embroidery silk, bold as brass although her dress was patched and washed raw. Then the rest—Charlotte Tappen, Hagar Currie, Dan Currie, and Henry Pearl, who didn't want to come along but probably thought we'd call him a sissy if he didn't, and chant about him as we sometimes did.
Looks like a girl—"
He didn't, as a matter of fact. He was a big gawky boy who rode in from the farm every day on his own horse, and who never had much time to go around with us because he had to help so much at home.
The room was chilly, like the town icehouse, where the blocks cut from the river in winter were stored all summer under the sawdust. We shivered and whispered, terrified at the bawling-out we'd get if we were caught. I didn't like the looks of that baby at all. Charlotte and I hung back, but Lottie actually opened up the glass-topped lid and stroked the white velvet and the white folds of satin and the small puckered white face. And then she looked at us and dared us to do the same, but no one would.
"Scaredy cats," she said. "If ever I have a baby, and it dies, I'm going to have it all done up in satin just like this."
"You'll have to find a father for it first."
That was Dan, who never missed a chance.
"You shut up," Lottie said, "you shut up, or I'll—"
Telford was dancing up and down with panic. "Come on, come on—we'll really catch it if mamma sees us here—"
The Simmons family lived above the Funeral Parlor. Billy Simmons wasn't anything to worry over, but Telford's mamma was a pinch-faced parsimonious shrew who would stand on the doorstep and hand Telford a cookie after school but never had one to spare for any other child, and Telford, mortified, would chew dryly on it under her waiting eye. Out we all trooped, and as we went, Lottie whispered to Telford in a coy voice that made Charlotte and me double over with laughter.
"Don't be scared, Telford. I'd stick up for you. I'd tell your mother it was Dan made you do it."
"I'd as soon you didn't," Telford puffed, pulling his short legs out over the casement. "It wouldn't help a speck. She'd never listen to you, Lottie."
When we were out on the lawn, and the basement window closed and everyone safe and innocent once more, we played shadow tag around the big spruce trees that shaded and darkened that whole yard. All of us except Lottie, that is. She went home.
I was clever in school, and Father was pleased. Sometimes when I got a star for my work, he'd give me a paper of button candies or a handful of those pastel lozenges that bore sugary messages—Be Mine, You Beauty, Love Me, Be True. We sat around the dining-room table every evening, Dan and Matt and I, doing our homework. An hour was required, and if we had no more schoolwork to do, Father would set us sums and dispense advice.
Excerpted from The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. Copyright © 1964 Margaret Laurence. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Margaret Laurence was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, in 1926. Upon graduation from Winnipeg’s United College in 1947, she took a job as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen.
From 1950 until 1957 Laurence lived in Africa, the first two years in Somalia, the next five in Ghana, where her husband, a civil engineer, was working. She translated Somali poetry and prose during this time, and began her career as a fiction writer with stories set in Africa.
When Laurence returned to Canada in 1957, she settled in Vancouver, where she devoted herself to fiction with a Ghanaian setting: in her first novel, This Side Jordan, and in her first collection of short fiction, The Tomorrow-Tamer. Her two years in Somalia were the subject of her memoir, The Prophet’s Camel Bell.
Separating from her husband in 1962, Laurence moved to England, which became her home for a decade, the time she devoted to the creation of five books about the fictional town of Manawaka, patterned after her birthplace, and its people: The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House, and The Diviners.
Laurence settled in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1974. She complemented her fiction with essays, book reviews, and four children’s books. Her many honours include two Governor General’s Awards for Fiction and more than a dozen honorary degrees.
Margaret Laurence died in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1987.
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Hagar Shipley is truly one of the most memorable characters in all of literature. Her obsession with proper appearences ultimately leads to her alienation from her family. Read this book now.