A fitting alternate title for The Stone Angel might have been Pride and Prejudice, but of course, by the time Margaret Laurence’s magnificent novel came out in 1964, that title was already long taken.
I’d read and loved this book as required reading in high school. Over two decades later, I’d long forgotten the beautiful prose and central plot. With several (excellent) fantasy novels in my recent reading, I longed for something closer to home. The Stone Angel, grounded in simple dirt and sweat, heavy with imagery and metaphors only a harsh prairie climate can offer, delivers — over 50 years post-publication.
The stone angel — the massive, expensive, sightless marble statue in the Manawaka cemetery — is monument to “her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one,” says Hagar Shipley, reflecting on her life at age 90, referencing her mother in the opening lines of the book.
Pitted from snow and wind and eventually toppled by random vandals — the stone angel symbolizes Hagar: her inability to love, and her tenuous grip on a civilized and respectable life.
Satin and silver and true, everlasting happiness are forever out of Hagar’s grasp — not derailed by coarse, underachieving men — but by Hagar herself. A woman who realizes all too late in life — at the very last second in fact — that she is incapable of humility, she’s forever finding fault, hung up on superficial flaws of character, behaviour, and appearance.
Hagar is blind to that which should bring her happiness — her children, her husband Bram Shipley — the handsome man who blows his nose with his fingers, his massive winter coat pockets bursting with “scraps of frayed binder twine, a bag of sticky peppermints bearded with bits of fluff. Never of course, a handkerchief.”
Always worried about appearances, Hagar cannot relax enough to love her husband, her children, or herself. There is always the fear that others may observe and find her wanting:
I would have wished it. This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly, and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must have always have wanted that — simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? I know. I know. Or have I always known, in some far crevice of my heart, some care too deeply buried, too concealed? Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by brake of proper appearances — oh proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?
Hagar, (Hebrew for “flight” or “stranger”) is drought in human form. Devoid of love, warmth, acceptance, humility, and forgiveness, those around her wither and die like tall grass under a relentless prairie sun:
Pride was my wilderness and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains with me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched.
This book is about expectations dashed, about self-imposed shame, and the realization that you can’t take it all back. When it comes to human feelings, there is no do-over. “Nothing can take away those years” and the damage they’ve wrought.
The prose is exceptionally beautiful. Despite the heavy themes, this book holds hope as heady as the smell of fresh cut grass and blooming lilac bushes in a Manitoba June. The Stone Angel is worth your time.
— December, 2015