The Stone Angel offers a portrait of a remarkable character who at age ninety confronts her mortality and is terrified, for all she can see behind her is a wasteland of personal failures. Yet her terror becomes the necessary catalyst for a change of heart and a measure of grace that marks her final days.
Hagar Shipley looms large on nearly every page. The novel works mainly through the flashback memories of a ninety-year-old matron who faces the need for a nursing home. Her case is terminal, but she is not ready to die. Too many ghosts from the past haunt her memories and preclude peace for facing the future. Those ghosts are exposed through a skillful interweaving of past and present that cumulatively render an insightful examination of a fallen angel whose overweening pride led her into self-exile.
Hagar loses her mother early in life. She never makes her peace with that death. Yet her imperious, prominent, and self-made father tolerates no weakness of any kind; thus Hagar learns to shut the valves of emotion and live a life of negation and stoicism. Strong-willed like her father, she defies him when she comes of age and chooses to marry Bram Shipley, a good-looking but, in her father’s eyes, good-for-nothing widower with two children who lives on a rundown homestead that never would afford anyone a decent living. No family member attends Hagar’s wedding, and Hagar’s family relationship is never restored. Besides, she soon discovers that she has made a terrible mistake. Bram has no intention of being made over by a snooty young woman who has finishing-school and pedigree credentials and pretensions of a superior sophistication. Instead, Hagar finds herself dragged down by his crudeness, poverty, and hopeless future. Still, they have two sons together: Marvin, whom she hardly acknowledges as her own, and John, in whom she recognizes herself and who is the apple of her eye. Bram feels increasingly judged and rejected by Hagar; when his outrageous behavior publicly shames Hagar, she decides to leave with her younger son, John. The two move to the Pacific coast, where Hagar finds employment as a live-in housekeeper for an elderly gentleman, Mr. Oatley. John feels displaced and eventually begins to run around with a bad crowd. Predictably, the time comes when he feels pulled back to his roots, the Shipley place and Bram, to whom he feels connected more than Hagar is able to accept. When Bram falls ill, Hagar feels compelled to return. She finds the place, including Bram and John, in an advanced state of neglect. In fact, Bram is dying, and John, who has been caring for him, is beginning to look and act much like a younger version of his father. When Bram dies, John cries, but Hagar does not. She feels John slipping away from her, yet she widens the gulf when she denounces him for dating Arlene, a girl she considers below his class. When she visits again a year later, she in effect forbids John to take his girlfriend home. Shortly thereafter, John and Arlene are killed in a freak accident, and Hagar’s heart turns to stone.
She returns to Vancouver and stays with Mr. Oatley till he dies. He leaves her money in his will, with which she buys her own house. When she can no longer take care of herself, Marvin and his wife Doris move in with her. She is ill and in need of constant care in a nursing home, but it is a move for which is not prepared.
Instead, she embarks on another journey, for which she is physically unfit but spiritually most needy. She takes the bus toward the sea, to a place aptly called Shadow Point, a valley where all the shadows of death past and future need to be confronted. There, in an abandoned cannery, Hagar enters the darkness of her soul and, in a divine delirium of sorts, makes amends with her beloved John, for whose death she has always felt responsible and therefore was never able to accept and mourn. It is at that moment that Hagar experiences freedom for the first time. After this, she is able to cry,...
(The entire section is 3,011 words.)