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Margaret Laurence in 1979.

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

There is a poem entitled Snow by Margaret Avison in her 1960 collection Winter Sun. Reading the line “Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes / The optic heart must venture: a jail-break,” I’m instantly reminded of Margaret Laurence, that inexhaustible escape artist, because it underscores that no one shows us where we come from – we must see it for ourselves. And seeing is an action that is not passive.

When Carol Shields declared that Canadians can take 1960 as the year our national literature began, it’s no coincidence that year was the one both Avison and Laurence published their first works (Canada’s other Margaret wasn’t far behind; Atwood’s Double Persephone was released in 1961). Canadian writers have moved mountains in those 60 intervening years, and it’s easy to forget that before 1960, Canadian literature was largely taken as “Britannia in the wilderness” or “Uncle Sam in the cold.” The Union Jack was still run up poles across the country and “Canadiana,” our corpus of homegrown myths and legends, was ripe for ridicule.

Into that budding world came Laurence’s acerbic wit. In Manawaka, her fictional Manitoba town, she gave Canada a mythic land on par with Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The books set in that town (The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House, The Diviners) are masterclasses in evocation of place. So redolent are they of their real-world parallel of Neepawa, Man., that it’s easy to imagine Laurence as a hermitic chronicler of prairie-town life, a pedant who snooped on her neighbours from her grandfather’s grand Italianate-style house on the corner of Brydon and First.

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Indeed, in Neepawa, she was taken as a clear-sighted malevolent intent on settling old scores. Nothing could be further from the truth. As with all true renditions of hometowns, her fiction was suitably half-brutal, a playful wrestling match with her hometown that only occasionally drew blood. She didn’t set out to skewer her fellow prairie folk, but instead sought to understand them. Her essays and personal writing, newly collected and edited by University of Alberta professor emeritus Nora Foster Stovel in Recognition and Revelation (McGill-Queen’s University Press), show her to be a writer constantly at odds with herself and her culture, with a driving compulsion for flight and a longing for self-knowledge.

In a letter to Al Purdy, Laurence wrote: “In my fiction, I knew exactly where to go, but in my life I didn’t.” These thoughts are typical of many children born onto the Canadian prairies. Like them, Laurence felt she’d been dealt an unfair hand – and in many ways, she had. Born in 1926, her childhood was spent living through drought and the Depression. Orphaned by the age of ten, she was raised by her grandfather, a rigid man whose piety inspired in his granddaughter fear bordering on revulsion.

Writing about the Neepawa of her youth in Where the World Began, one of her most personal essays, she recalls drifters begging for water and food at the back door, wheat standing bleached and dead in the fields, faces that “would not smile much.” It was – and remains – a place enthusiastic about hard work and derisive of hard questions. While her contemporaries found work on farms and shops, knowing her path lay in writing left her lonely, and hankering to get away.

At 18, having had enough of the gossip, the moralizing, the small-town mercantile Calvinism, she did not hesitate, moving first to Winnipeg, then with her husband Jack to Africa, where they lived from 1950 to 1957. Those years were prolific – she was, as she said, a “busy, western woman,” translating local poetry in Somalia (A Tree for Poverty, published 1957), and collecting fiction and plays in Ghana (Long Drums and Cannons, published 1963).

Despite her travels taking her out into the world at large, she still felt the magnetic pull of belonging. Like Nathaniel, the protagonist of her 1960 novel This Side Jordan, the farther she travelled from home, the stronger the force compelling her to claim her homegrown identity grew. Yet, she resisted: the Scots-Presbyterians of Neepawa were too parochial, too staid for this burgeoning transatlantic woman. She yearned to belong to a group that was better, bolder, worldlier. She adored rebels (the antithesis of her brooding grandfather), and was obsessed with Métis iconoclasts Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. Her sympathy with the Métis sometimes spilled over into a confused desire: in Somalia, she confided (falsely) to friend and linguist B.W. Andrzejewski in a fireside whisper that she had Native American blood.

In the 1960s, while living in England, she made several journeys to Scotland in an attempt to redress her Scottish heritage, only to find the answer did not lay there either. Her inherited concept of that heritage jarred with the facts: she’d believed her ancestors to be Highland Scots; they were Lowland. “Gainsay Who Dare!”, the motto she gives the pseudo-biographical Currie clan in The Stone Angel, was far from her actual Wemyss clan motto, “Je pense.” The truth, as always, wore better – even if it didn’t live up to expectations.

Her family was too long gone, and had become more “mock-Scots than real Scots,” leaving her feeling “not connected except distantly with Scotland.” There was solace to be found in that distance, however. Canada beckoned to her as a place where “ancestors became everyone’s ancestors,” a nation of collective inheritance where she could (and did) satisfy both her nationalist and rebellious prides by claiming the Battle of Batoche and Scotland’s Battle of Culloden as part of her cultural legacy.

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By then, the pressure to address her corner of the Canadian landscape was a compulsion she could no longer escape from. Her avoidance had become like a neurosis: “I’m in the strange position of being homesick wherever I am,” she told the CBC in 1966. In her incursions into the history and culture of others, she had been, she realized, “avoiding the necessity of coming closer to home, closer to myself.” Going home, then, was an act she undertook “partly in order to be freed from it, partly in order to try to understand myself and perhaps others of my generation.”

While going home entailed acceptance of her background, it did not necessitate submission. Her last visit to Neepawa was in 1966, two decades before her death. By then she had begun to carry that world with her in the “town of the mind,” Manawaka. As she caroused along the Wachakwa River and took in shows at the Roxy Theatre, her gaze was brutally candid, but ultimately sympathetic. Manawaka is the Prairies with all its harshness, brutality and kindness laid bare.

She returned to Canada in 1972, moving to Lakefield, Ont., where she lived out her days. With the publication of The Diviners in 1974, she announced she was done with Manawaka. She felt she had plumbed to the dregs of that creative well. In a letter to poet Al Purdy, she admitted that although she’d come to the end of the Manawaka Cycle, when she thought of writing more, she “didn’t know where to go.” Having decided to move on, her fiction languished. Although she continued to write essays, children’s stories and a memoir, she never published another novel.

As a writer, Laurence was a sod-buster, breaking virgin soil. Her essays, perhaps even more than her novels, prove that. Where her novels are committed and confident, her personal writing shows her struggles with her place in the world. They also confirm her humour and humility; as a progressive before her time, she was an advocate for racial equality and nuclear disarmament, and far from prudish (she’d take pornography over censorship any day). Crucially, the essays show that even for a talent like Laurence, a writer to her fingertips, self-knowledge does not come naturally. Manawaka was a labour, drawing from a deep wellspring of cold, uncomfortable water. Her exhaustive cultivation of both personal and national preoccupations with the questions of where and who was a progenitor of our modern rural Canadiana, and readied the seedbed for the likes of Miriam Toews, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Maria Campbell and countless other rural writers.

The drive Laurence felt to bolt from her small-town existence wasn’t unique to her – it’s still felt all across rural Canada today. Dwindling prairie towns are full of self-pitying youths eager to get away, hankering to be some distant place where everyone is having fun – the “real world.” I know all too well – I was one of them. Others, farther removed from their agricultural or pioneer roots, or too uncomfortable with the muddled and sometimes brutal history of displacement, comfortably dismiss the Prairies as nothing but “a sea of land … dull, bleak, flat, uninteresting.” Those words are Laurence’s, listing the complaints she often heard from people travelling across Manitoba. “You have to live there to know that country,” she replied, knowing full well that looking on the way through is far from seeing.

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As a young boy growing up only 40 kilometres from Neepawa, I wish someone had put a Laurence book in my hand 20 years ago – to remind me that there is no wrong place to be from, only the wrong way to look at one’s native soil: with eyes closed. Laurence’s legacy is flagging on her home turf – I learned nothing of her growing up, and did not read her work until I myself had absconded to lands foreign. But my friends and I would have done well to know that her struggle to understand the world – to understand herself – always took her home. And that far from being the middle of nowhere, our hometown, just like Manawaka, is really the middle of everywhere.

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