rereading my life

I recently drove across Canada and the Western States and had the chance to stop by the home of Margaret Laurence in Manitoba. I have a big place in my heart for Laurence’s book, The Diviners.

The book was my first ‘grown up’ novel. I had devoured every children’s book in our home by 1974, the year The Diviners was published. I had read dozens of modern and classic plays that were in anthologies on our bookshelves, and I had been permanently scarred by Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (my mother’s idea of a coffee table book). If not scarred, definitely confused.

I had literally worn the cover off both Charlotte’s Web and Harriet the Spy. My best friend for many years was the dog next door; I believed she understood all the secrets I told her, and that she and the squirrels and birds spoke to each other, like the animals in Charlotte’s Web.

I began carrying a notebook around after reading Harriet the Spy for the first time. Like many characters in the book, I was considered an oddball and overly opinionated. (I was an oddball and I was more than a little talkative, if I’m honest.) I often spent time in my childhood ostracized, much like Harriet; for real or perceived slights, for being part of the only single parent family in my school, for not having cool jeans, for having bangs, for not having bangs, for just about everything.

I had no heroic ‘return to the fold’ moment as Harriet did, but I always held out hope that this time the apology would be the golden ticket.

Books and my imagination were always my refuge.

I do not recall where I found The Diviners. I’m going to guess it was the library I visited weekly.

An excerpt from The Canadian Encyclopedia explains the novel this way:

The Diviners (1974), the fifth and final book-length fiction in Margaret Laurence’s celebrated Manawaka series, is the story of Morag Gunn, a Manitoba prairie-born novelist and single mother, whose life and works loosely resemble Margaret Laurence’s own.

This is truly not much of an explanation for book like this. Laurence appeared to write simply yet on further examination, it is with significant complexity that she tells the story of Morag Gunn. Morag’s parents die and she goes to live with family friends. The man of the family, Christie, is a scavenger who runs the town dump. The woman, Prin, short for Princess, rarely leaves her home for a variety of reasons both expressed and unknown; Prin seems unable to interact with the world. When Morag goes to school she is immediately made to feel different, less than enough. Her dress is wrong and the other children let her know.

Oh Morag. I remember so well going to school one day in a touristy, tacky Hawaiian skirt. How it came to be in our home, I don’t recall, but I distinctly remember that my sister told me not to wear it, but I didn’t listen – I never did when I had put my mind to something.

I thought the skirt was the most beautiful thing in the world.

Apparently I was wrong.

I was told in clear (mean, horrible, demeaning) terms that my idea of beauty was a joke. I left school at recess to go home (apparently yard supervision was not what it is today!).

I didn’t have Morag’s gumption and ability to put everyone in their place. I began policing what I wore and often wore the same thing over and over rather than try something new and risk a negative reaction.

When Morag was around adults, they also let her know that she was an outsider and their pity embarrassed Morag.

After getting in trouble in school one time – for talking too much, no doubt, I was sent to the principal’s office. As I sat there, the principal discussed my home life with the vice principal and a few teachers. It was the first time I realized that people pitied me and my siblings. I thought my life was pretty great at home. It was later that, like Morag, I became aware of how unusual my life was and I could become embarrassed by the circumstance.

At one point, Christie is driving Morag on his scavenger wagon and they come across some youths who Morag knows. Christie reacts to them in a way that mortified Morag and she wishes he would just be quiet.

My mother was a local television and radio personality and she went on air more than a few times talking about things that I wished other people didn’t have to know. I was proud of my mom, but I could have crawled under a rock more than once.

Morag would understand. Once again, literature had provided me with a kindred spirit.

There was a lot of controversy around Laurence’s portrayal of a single mother. Morag, although married at the time she gets pregnant, is not carrying her husband’s baby. Rather, she has an affair with a man who had been her first love (and lover) as a young woman. It’s actually a stretch to call the conception of their baby an affair: they sleep together one night and then part ways. Morag is clearly using the man Skinner, to end her marriage, although she does have a deep affection for him. Throughout the novel, the baby’s father returns to Morag and her daughter’s life.

There was a lot said about the ‘salty’ language Laurence used as well, but the underlying criticism likely was that the father of Morag’s daughter was a Metis man. Racism against Metis and other First Nations was running above and below the surface throughout ‘polite’ Canadian culture then as it does now.

Lisa Moore, in a Globe and Mail piece written in 2003 about The Diviners sums up what I think I truly love about Morag: she is unbearably vulnerable, and instantly strong, a queer alchemy Laurence works throughout.” 

Moore points out something I had not considered – the honest portrayal Laurence gives of Morag’s aging and the new set of vulnerabilities inherent in that time in a woman’s life. Morag is frank about the pitfalls of aging including loneliness, and speaks to her daughter, Pique, about jealousy for what is gone from Morag’s life but is so vibrant and active in Pique’s.

Rereading The Diviners at this moment in my life, just like the first time, has been like going home: sitting in a place where you are welcomed, accepted and understood.