Like two of Jane Urquhart’s earlier novels, The Whirlpool (1986) and The Underpainter (1997),The Stone Carvers is about art and artists. However, the central character in The Whirlpool was a woman who was rejected by the poet she loved because he preferred illusion to reality, while the protagonist of The Underpainter was an elderly artist whose calculated detachment merely made his art worthless, as well as losing him the one love of his life. Like The Whirlpool, The Stone Carvers has a woman protagonist and she, too, loses the man she loves, but this time it is the woman, not the man, who is the artist. Moreover, unlike the artist in The Underpainter, Klara Becker maintains only enough detachment to perform her work; every line, every angle of the stone figure she carves is memorable because it is so clearly an expression of her passion and her grief.
The Stone Carvers begins in 1934 near Arras, France, at the site of the Vimy Ridge War Memorial, which was built to honor the sixty-six thousand Canadians killed in France during World War I. In the prologue to the novel, two men are inspecting the monument, which has not yet been completed. One of them is a real person, Walter Allward (1875-1955), the Toronto sculptor who designed the memorial and spent fourteen years supervising its construction. Ironically, at the ceremony in 1936 when King Edward VIII of England unveiled the monument, Allward was never mentioned and he was all but forgotten by the country he had served until he appeared as a character in Urquhart’s novel.
The author admits that since she could find out almost nothing about Allward, her characterization is largely based on conjecture. In any case, Allward is a key character in The Stone Carvers, representing as he does the selfless single- mindedness of the true artist. Although Klara is a fictional character and there is no evidence that any woman worked on the memorial, Urquhart hypothesizes that the real Allward would have seen enough of himself in Klara to bend the rules for her, though as a man of his time, he would have insisted that her dedication to her art, her strength of will, and her obvious genius were aberrations, male qualities that inexplicably had appeared in a mere female.
However, The Stone Carvers is about much more than the triumph of one woman over a society determined to relegate her to an inferior place. The novel covers seven decades, moves back and forth between the Old World and the New, and focuses on not just one artist but five, all of whom surmount obstacles, external and internal, in order to produce the works that make their lives meaningful.
If the central theme of the novel is the triumph of art over adversity, an important secondary motif is the relationship between love and art. Both themes are introduced in the first chapter of The Stone Carvers, entitled “The Needle and the Chisel.” In 1866, a Bavarian priest, Father Pater Archangel Gstir, receives a letter from his bishop explaining that he is to be sent to Ontario, Canada, to minister to the German Catholics there. In reality, the bishop is responding to an order from the eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845- 1886). When Father Gstir arrives at the tiny village where he decides to locate, he finds that there is no church. Immediately he enlists the aid of a genial man, Joseph Becker, who is a miller by trade but a wood-carver by choice. Becker agrees to carve the crucifix, the statue of the Virgin Mary, and the other figures that Father Gstir needs for his spiritual outpost, while the talented seamstress who in time becomes Becker’s wife embroiders vestments and altar cloths. Thus, both of the arts indicated in the chapter title are involved in realizing the dream of the priest and of his patron, who as an obsessed castle builder can take an interest in Father Gstir’s project.
The two artists manage to complete the essentials for a religious pageant in time for the feast of Corpus Christi. The procession draws a large crowd to the village, which Father Gstir has christened Shoneval, arousing such enthusiasm that subsequently the men raise a log church and then build a much larger stone church, based on a wooden model that Joseph Becker...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)