Thursday, September 29, 2011

Canadian Book Challenge 5: Dance on the Earth - Margaret Laurence

This memoir feels particularly intimate because Margaret Laurence dictated the second draft of it during her last illness -- she became too weak to sit at her typewriter.  Readers can almost feel the pauses, the musing and the striving for clarification that thoughtful speakers go for in conversation.

As with most memoirs, Dance on the Earth's most compelling chapters are the ones that describe Laurence's childhood growing up in Neepawa, Manitoba.  The memoir's sections are built around the three women she calls her three mothers:  Her birth mother, who died when she was a small child, her mother's sister, who later on became her stepmother when she married Margaret's father as well as her only parent, because her father died when she was nine, and her mother-in-law, whom she seems to have regarded with great respect and warmth.

When Margaret goes away to college and during her married years, some of the immediacy seems to fade. Laurence and her husband lived in several different countries during their marriage, but she doesn't really refer to them much, except for the strangeness and inconvenience.  At the point in the memoir in which she leaves her husband, (they were amicably divorced after years of separation) takes the two children and settles in England, the reader feels drawn nearer again.  In fact, Laurence really lights up at the mention of all her subsequent homes and seems to relish the memory of these places.  It's touching to read about her joy when a place felt really right to her.

Another high point of Dance on the Earth is Laurence's insistence that birth stories should be told, (as she mentions bitterly, for so many years male writers sneered at this tendency in women writers) so she tells the stories of her children's births in loving detail.  She's also frank and forthright at expressing her puzzlement, hurt and frustration over her award-winning novel, The Diviners, being challenged and on the verge of being banned just a short time later. Unhappily, this incident took place in the very area of Canada in which she decided to live after years in England.  Dance on the Earth is also full of marvelous photos spanning nearly a century's worth of photographs of both family and friends.  I was really pleased to see a picture of Al Purdy with Laurence's daughter, Jocelyn. 

 My only problem with the book was the ending.  In the last pages of her memoir, Margaret acknowledges that she doesn't have long and bids the reader, and seemingly life a dignified and heartfelt farewell.  Then there's a final section that's a mixture of writings -- poems, letters, speeches -- that Laurence had composed over the years.  I believe that if Laurence had been in better health and had had more time to live, she would have worked those pieces into the body of her memoir.  It was sad, because it was as if Jocelyn, who edited her mother's final work posthumously, was too upset and overwhelmed by the material and didn't have the heart to edit it into the memoir, but also didn't have the heart to leave it out completely.  After I closed the book, I was left unsettled and feeling  a sense of loss but also a sense of unquenchable strength.


Heather said...

First off, i'll admit, that I have only read a few of Margaret's works. But when you say you felt insettled after reading this, to me that is the right feeling. It's the one feeling that I do associate with Margaret Laurence. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

Bybee said...

You're welcome. This is my second work by Margaret Laurence. Now I want to read A Jest of God.

Teacher/Learner said...

The Diviners is one of my favourite books and I really liked The Stone Angel. Thanks for your review :) I've wanted to read this and you're the first blogger I've come across to have read it.