Letter from Lakefield: Discovering Margaret Laurence
If, like me, you mourn our current era of conglomerate “book” stores, you’re probably always on the hunt for a good independent bookseller. Here in Lakefield, Ontario, I’ve found a jewel: a small, quirky shop called HappenStance Books & Yarns. Yes, that’s what they sell – books and knitting supplies. HappenStance is also the information center and ticket outlet for the annual Lakefield Literary Festival, which happens this weekend, Friday, July 18 through Sunday, July 20. I’ve been to Lakefield many times with my husband, Jimmy, who has a family home there.
But it was only last year that we attended the Literary Festival for the first time. Martha Whatley, who, with Julie Dillon, co-owns HappenStance, directed us there. Martha is a dream bookstore proprietor – widely knowledgeable and genuinely in love with literature. If you’re a reader, you long for somebody like her to make suggestions; if you’re a writer, you live for the day when a bookseller will know and love your work as deeply as she knows and loves the work of the many fine Canadian writers she has recommended to me. It was last summer, as well, that on Martha’s suggestion, I bought and read two beautiful, haunting novels by Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel and The Diviners.
To my shame, I’d never heard of Laurence, who died in 1987, though I’ve driven past her former home in Lakefield many times. The festival was created to celebrate the work of authors who lived and wrote in Lakefield, and is held annually on the weekend closest to Laurence’s birthday. This a place with a strong literary heritage – sister authors Susanna Moody and Catherine Parr Traill lived on land I can see from my window as I write this – that seems to be refreshingly dominated by its women.
The Stone Angel and The Diviners are two of a group of five Laurence books linked by recurring families and characters, all connected to the town of Manawaka, in Manitoba. The other titles are A Jest of God and The Fire Dwellers, both novels, and A Bird in the House, a collection of linked short stories. The book jackets tell me that Manawaka is a fictional stand-in for the Manitoba town where Laurence grew up, and indeed, these books are fuelled, in part, by their various heroines’ successful or thwarted attempts to leave home.
I just finished reading the series last night, and now my regret that I didn’t know this author earlier is balanced by the deep delight one gets from discovering a fine original artist whose work is also able to speak directly to one’s own experience. Never mind that, as I am so often reminded up here, I am a city girl, and she was from the country; never mind that she was born almost four decades before me. Margaret Laurence has things to say about women and men, about woman and work, about the complicated web of family, education, social class, and money, about sex and love and longing, and about the peculiar and necessary lies we tell ourselves and each other as we pursue or mistake or sabotage our dreams, that seem to me to be as fresh as this morning’s light. Illuminating, brave, a little scary, her work calls to mind for me another courageous woman writer, the American poet Anne Sexton. They were contemporaries – Sexton was born in 1928, Laurence in 1926. I wonder what they would have said to each other, had they met.
There’s more to come on the 2008 Lakefield Literary Festival. Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from anyone who has read, loved, or argued with Margaret Laurence’s work. Write to me at [email protected].
HappenStance Books & Yarns is located at 44 Queen Street, Lakefield, Ontario. For information and tickets to the 2008 Lakefield Literary Festival you can call the bookstore at (705) 652-7535.
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© 2008, Rose Solari