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Margaret Laurence’s best-known books are the series of four novels and the short-story collection that have been called the Manawaka works, named after the fictional town in central Canada from which all the major characters originate. The series consists of The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), which was made into the motion picture Rachel, Rachel in 1968, The Fire-Dwellers (1969), A Bird in the House, and The Diviners (1974). Although this is not a series in the sense of sequels, the characters are related through their birthplace and memories, as well as some by birth, as in William Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha County.

Laurence also translated Somali folktales and poetry, published as A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose in 1954, the first collection of Somali literature ever published in English. The novel This Side Jordan (1960) tells the story of Ghanna’s emergence as a nation. New Wind in a Dry Land (1964) is an account of Laurence’s first two years in Somaliland, describing both her experiences and the life of Somali nomads; it was also published under the title The Prophet’s Camel Bell. In the field of literary criticism, Laurence wrote Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966 (1968), a study of Nigerian novelists and dramatists writing in English. She also wrote four novels for children.


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Margaret Laurence is not only a great Canadian writer but also a universal voice for understanding, independence, and brave experimentation with life. Her African work helps to point up the evils of colonization, whether of a country, a people, or an individual. Her Manawaka series more specifically looks at the oppression of women by societal expectations that are irrational and sexist and that result also in the lessening of individual men.

In 1967, Laurence became an Honorary Fellow of United College, University of Winnipeg; she was the first woman and the youngest person to be honored in this way. The novel This Side Jordan won for her Canada’s Beta Sigma Phi Award, a prize for the best first novel by a Canadian, in 1960. In 1971, Laurence was made a Companion of the Order of Canada; in the following years, she was awarded seven honorary degrees. Her novel The Diviners won the Governor General’s Medal for Fiction in 1974 and the Molson Prize. She received the Woman of the Year Award from B’nai B’rith Toronto Women’s Branch in 1976 and won the Periodical Distributor’s Award for the mass paperback edition of A Jest of God in October of 1977.

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Margaret Laurence published two short-story collections, The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963) and A Bird in the House (1970), and four children’s books, Jason’s Quest (1970), The Olden Days Coat (1979), Six Darn Cows (1979), and The Christmas Birthday Story (1980). She also produced a translation of Somali folktales and poems, A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose (1954); a travelogue, The Prophet’s Camel Bell (1963; also known as New Wind in a Dry Land, 1964); and a study of Nigerian novelists and playwrights, Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966 (1968). A collection of her essays, Heart of a Stranger, appeared in 1976. Because of her work on Nigerian fiction and drama, she is well known to students of African literature. Her memoir Dance on the Earth appeared posthumously in 1989.


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From the beginning of her writing career, Laurence received significant popular and critical recognition. This Side Jordan won the Beta Sigma Phi Award for best first novel by a Canadian; The Stone Angel received both critical and popular acclaim; A Jest of God earned Laurence the Governor-General’s Literary Award for fiction in 1966 and was adapted for motion pictures as Rachel, Rachel (directed by Paul Newman and released in 1968); The Diviners, despite less-than-universal critical acclaim, was at the top of the best-seller list for more than sixty consecutive weeks. Along with her popularity, Laurence enjoyed an international reputation as a consistently accomplished fiction writer. Her special contribution to the novel was recognized by Jack McClelland of the Canadian publishing house of McClelland & Stewart when he first read This Side Jordan. The stories that were gathered in The Tomorrow-Tamer and A Bird in the House originally appeared separately in such Canadian, American, and British periodicals as Prism, The Atlantic Monthly, and Queen’s Quarterly. Laurence also won respect as a lecturer and critic. United College, University of Winnipeg, made her an Honorary Fellow, the first woman and the youngest to be so honored. She received honorary degrees from McMaster, Dalhousie, Trent, University of Toronto, and Carleton University and served as writer-in-residence at several Canadian universities. Her works have been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish.

Discussion Topics

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Margaret Laurence is one of the many writers who have had to escape their home to write about it. Does it appear that her African experiences helped her to write about Manitoba?

Compare the insider-outsider conflicts in Manawaka with those in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

At what points in Laurence’s life can be seen signs of her own self-discovery?

What benefits does a reader uninterested in Manitoba acquire from the Manawaka books?

What interpretation of Dylan Thomas’s “rage” governs Laurence’s characterization of Hagar in The Stone Angel?


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Buss, Helen M. Mother and Daughter Relationships in the Manawaka Works of Margaret Laurence. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1985. A Jungian reading of the four Manawaka novels and A Bird in the House, this book raises some interesting issues about the mother-daughter relationships that Laurence depicts, although at times the archetypal readings can be somewhat dense. Includes a select bibliography of criticism on Laurence and some later feminist criticism that informs the critic’s work.

Coger, Greta M. K., ed. New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Gunnars, Kristjana, ed. Crossing the River: Essays in Honour of Margaret Laurence. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Turnstone Press, 1988. Twelve previously unpublished essays by Canadian and international writers and critics pay tribute to Laurence’s life and work. Includes some interesting new insights.

Hind-Smith, Joan. Three Voices: The Lives of Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy, Frederick Philip Grove. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1975. Designed for students and the general reader, this volume is very helpful as an introduction to Laurence’s work. It includes biographical information, at the same time providing narrative summaries of the major works.

Irvine, Lorna M. Critical Spaces: Margaret Laurence and Janet Frame. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Irvine provides chapters on early review and critiques, maturing opinions, biographical and critical studies, and the role of politics, gender, and literary study. Includes a detailed bibliography.

Kertzer, J. M. “Margaret Laurence and Her Works.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works: Fiction Series, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Toronto: ECW Press, 1987. This study is divided into the four parts, “Laurence’s Works” being the longest and most thorough section. Despite its scholarliness, this study’s clear style and extensive bibliography make it invaluable.

King, James. The Life of Margaret Laurence. Reprint. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2002. A good, updated biography of the author. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Lucking, David. Ancestors and Gods: Margaret Laurence and the Dialectics of Identity. New York: P. Lang, 2001. A study relying on feminist criticism and semiotics.

Morley, Patricia. Margaret Laurence. Boston: Twayne, 1981. An extremely helpful and complete study of Laurence’s work, which the author approaches by first arguing that Laurence, despite the fact that her work tends to focus on two very disparate places, Africa and Canada, has shown a consistent development of ideas and themes. She then looks at the African works, followed by the Manawaka cycle. Includes a complete chronology up to 1980, biographical information, an index, and an annotated select bibliography. A useful reference tool.

New, William, ed. Margaret Laurence: The Writer and Her Critics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1977. This volume is an anthology of criticism on Laurence and interviews with her. Contains an informative introduction by the editor and, most important, three central essays by Laurence herself, which are invaluable aids to the understanding of her fiction.

Nicholson, Colin, ed. Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Margaret Laurence. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1990. An excellent collection of critical essays on Laurence, most written specifically for this book. They cover such topics as Laurence’s place in the Canadian tradition in fiction, her work on Africa, close readings of specific works, comparison with Tillie Olsen and Jack Hodgins, and the use of autobiography in her writing. Includes a helpful preface and an index.

Riegel, Christian, ed. The Writing of Margaret Laurence: Challenging Territory. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1997. Essays on Laurence’s African stories, the novels, and Laurence’s Scots Presbyterian heritage and other early influences. Includes a bibliography.

Sorfleet, John R., ed. “The Work of Margaret Laurence.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 27 (1980). This issue, devoted to Laurence, comprises four stories, a letter and an essay by Laurence, and nine essays by Canadian critics on various aspects of her fiction.

Stovel, Norma. Rachel’s Children: Margaret Laurence’s “A Jest of God.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1992.

Thomas, Clara. The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. A close reading of the works in the Manawaka cycle combined with an argument that although Laurence’s characters talk Canadian, Laurence cannot be restricted to the category of Canadian or prairie writer, as her concerns, experiences, and philosophy are far from limited to one nation, or even one continent. Supplemented by a complete bibliographic checklist.

Verduyn, Christl, ed. Margaret Laurence: An Appreciation. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1988. The eighteen essays in this invaluable book chronicle the evolution of Laurence’s vision in both her fiction and the chief social concerns of her life. The essay topics range from studies of her early African-experience stories to Laurence’s own address/essay “My Final Hour.”

Woodcock, George. Introducing Margaret Laurence’s “The Stone Angel”: A Reader’s Guide. Toronto: ECW Press, 1989. A close reading of the novel The Stone Angel, the first of the Manawaka series. Examines the novel’s plots, characters, themes, origins, comparisons, and critical reception, as well as Laurence’s work as a whole. Includes a useful chronology of Laurence’s life, a brief biography, and an index.

Woodcock, George, ed. A Place to Stand On: Essays by and About Margaret Laurence. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1983. A thorough, rich exploration of Laurence’s craft and works, containing essays by Laurence and various critics published over more than twenty years. The book is highlighted by interviews with Laurence. Also includes a useful bibliography.


Critical Essays