Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
The Stone Angel, Laurence’s first prairie novel, introduced Manawaka, the fictional town in Manitoba based on the author’s hometown of Neepawa. The book was a critical success from the beginning. It was followed by three others that, as a cycle, constitute a kind of epic of small-town prairie life, authentically rendered through recurrent themes and well-developed heroines who, as early feminists, search for identity.
The main characters share an internal dissonance that lies at the heart of most of Laurence’s fiction. It threatens to arrest their human development and leave them with a debilitating sense of insignificance. In Hagar, it is the tension between her pugnacious personality and her fear of emotionality. In A Jest of God (1966), Rachel’s personality is Hagar’s opposite: she is too weak-willed to rage. However, like Hagar, she too is emotionally repressed, but she is able to take action once she too has confronted and exercised her emotional needs. Stacey, in The Fire-Dwellers (1969), is Rachel’s sister, but her dissonance is a more complex one, and she is far from submissive. Strong like Hagar, Stacey does battle with a world that threatens to alienate, isolate, and dehumanize. Like Hagar and Rachel, she finds in the end a qualified peace through an enhanced understanding of self and others. The Diviners (1974), structurally and thematically the most complex of the cycle, brings together a number of these characters and themes. Though the protagonist is Morag, there are references to Stacey and Rachel. It is through Morag especially that Laurence recapitulates her vision and concerns as a writer. The enemies to human wholeness include pride, selfishness, emotional paralysis, fear, bigotry, and prejudice. Morag understands at the end that to be delivered from such enemies is to enter a state of grace.
Laurence, one of the most beloved of Canadian writers, has twice won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction. She became a leading figure in the Canadian renaissance of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Her books have been translated into many other languages and continue to be read widely, but it is The Stone Angel that stands as her classic contribution to world literature.