Alien Heart

by Lyall Powers
ISBN: 0887551750

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Margaret Laurence Danced on this Earth
by Clara Thomas

Lyall Powers is uniquely qualified to write this biography of Margaret Laurence. From the time in the 40s when they were fellow undergraduates at United College in Winnipeg, both primarily interested in English courses and sometimes finding themselves in the same classes, they were friends. He attended her wedding to Jack Laurence in 1948; Jean Simpson, who became his wife, was Margaret's Maid of Honour, and the friendship continued throughout their lives. Jack Borland, another classmate, was, he tells us, Margaret's "first adult love," and, like her, deeply interested in writing. Borland became editor of the college magazine Vox and she became his assistant editor. In the Fall of 1986, in Lakefield and struggling to come to terms with her terminal illness, Margaret asked them to spend Thanksgiving with her: "We got together, two couples and Johnnie Walker, and reminisced as though we hadn't seen each other for a couple of weeks." He and Borland were back for her funeral at the beginning of January; it was then that he determined to write this biography.
Throughout his career, Powers was a Professor of English at the University of Michigan, teaching modern fiction, the American novel and, in recent years, the novels of Margaret Laurence. He is an accomplished critic and a close-reading analyst of fiction, well known in scholarly circles, especially for his books on Henry James and William Faulkner. Alien Heart weaves together Margaret's life and work from the earliest poems and stories of her youth, not, as he says, from "the facile reading into the fiction of a superficial confessional' or autobiographical feature." His work is done from the vantage point of one who knows the context from which she began to write and can often and sensitively discover the complex relationships between Margaret's work and her life. He is not interested in a critical evaluation of her work. Rather, his desire is to open up each work, to make available for the reader the meanings-and the riches-he himself has found in it. After The Stone Angel's publication, Malcolm Ross, whose friendship Margaret had treasured since she was his student in college days, wrote to her: "My expectations were high-but not high enough....you are well on your way to becoming not only OUR finest novelist, but a first-rater by world standards." Lyall Powers would agree.
The bare outline of her life will be familiar to many readers: born in Neepawa, Manitoba in 1926, the daughter of Robert Wemyss and Verna Simpson Wemyss, she lost her mother to acute appendicitis and peritonitis when she was four and her father to pneumonia when she was eight. Her mother's sister, Margaret, gave up her teaching job in Calgary and came home to look after young Margaret, marrying Robert Wemyss a year later. In 1933 the family expanded with the adoption of Robert Junior. When Grandmother Simpson died in 1935, the same year as Robert Wemyss, Margaret with her daughter and son moved into the Simpson house to look after grandfather Simpson and, undoubtedly, to ease their shaky financial situation in those Depression years. This was the third move in Margaret's young life and in her experience of death and loss Powers finds the rationale for Alien Heart, his title: "Before the age of ten, Peggy had lost her paternal grandfather, both parents, her Uncle Stuart, and her maternal grandmother....And within these combinations of death and displacement runs the theme of Peggy's irrational sense of guilt- another facet of her alien heart.'" Powers also links his title to the verse from Exodus so vitally important to Margaret: "And thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." That verse, which he uses as an epigraph to his work, was, of course, the source of her title for the essay collection, Heart of a Stranger.
Powers divides his book into two sections, Peggy (1926-1962) and Margaret (1962-1987). In the early years he and everyone else called her "Peggy" or, sometimes, "Peg". That section of Alien Heart takes her from birth to the successful publication of her African works, This side Jordan and The Tomorrow-Tamer. At fourteen she had been convinced of her fated future when, walking upstairs in her Grandfather Simpson's house, "A thought just occurred to me.... I can't be a nurse; I have to be a writer. I was appalled and frightened." Powers accepts that early commitment and marshalls his material accordingly. After 1962, when with the children, Jocelyn and David, she left Canada for England, she became Margaret, gradually insisting on that name, a symbol to her of her growth to maturity and also of her burgeoning success as a writer. Powers's Margaret section has two parts: "The Manawaka Years" (1962-1974), provides a close reading of each of the Manawaka novels as well as the continuing narrative of her life; "Citizen Margaret" (1975-1987), tells the story of her later life, public, private and literary, as one of Canada's best-known and best-loved writers.
>From her first High School year, when she had a story, "The Case of the Blond Butcher: A Wanted Man" published in the Young Authors page of the Winnipeg Free Press, Margaret used a two-voice narrative strategy that would become her method in all the Manawaka works: the protagonist is holding a dialogue with herself. One voice tells the story, the other comments on the first, critically, humorously, ironically. From the beginning too, her feeling for underdogs, outcasts, society's misfits, is evident. Powers demonstrates the enhancement of this empathy for life's losers in her years at United College by sketching the strong tradition of the "social gospel" that had been an integral part of the college from its beginning.
The convictions and the activism of the political left were of lifelong importance to Margaret, enhanced by the journalism she worked at after graduation and by all her subsequent experience. She had a longing for adventure and when she met Jack Laurence, ten years her senior and a veteran of the R.A.F., with wartime experience in India, he seemed to her the epitome of mature good judgment as well as romance. Their marriage in 1948 and subsequent sojourn in Somaliland and then Ghana provided the liberating catalyst for Margaret's creativity. The translations of Somali folk-tales and poetry that became A Tree for Poverty; the novel, This Side Jordan; the stories later collected in the The Tomorrow-Tamer; and The Prophet's Camel-Bell, her account of their dam-building months in Somaliland; all these are lasting testimony to the achievements of the African years.
The Laurence family returned to Vancouver with Jocelyn and David, both born in the Ghana years, but Margaret found herself increasingly dissatisfied, obsessed by her need to write and bedeviled by an insistent old woman's voice, demanding that her story be told. So began the book first called Hagar, then The Stone Angel, the groundbreaking first Manawaka novel that defined a new level of excellence in Canadian writing. Its personal cost to Margaret was heavy and permanent-separation from Jack, a move with the children to England, various attempts at reconciliation, and finally, in 1969, divorce and the return "home" to Canada. Her guilt at leaving him and breaking up their family was as much an uneradicable part of her makeup as her need to write.
Powers's careful analysis of each Manawaka novel comes to its climax and the final statement of his belief at the end of his work on The Diviners. He quotes Margaret's letter to Michel Fabre, a Professor from France; "Morag is a writer and she is deliberately setting out to construct her life and of course the novel she is writing is The Diviners." Later in the text he sums up the conviction he has reached: "It was the pressure of those problems that made her feel the need, the genuine urgency, to resort to fiction as a kind of therapy; and we must be grateful for the consequent pearls." No one who experienced Margaret's urgency while writing, her restlessness and uncertainty between novels or her mystical sense of the Manawaka works as having been "given" to her could possibly disagree with him.
In his final section, Citizen Margaret, Powers writes knowledgeably and sensitively about her last years, the many causes she supported and the many friends who loved her. His ending "And then-" is entirely right, a moving echo of the end of Hagar's quest in The Stone Angel. However, alongside Powers's "Troubled Margaret" who found release in her writing, we also need to celebrate the constant presence of "The Laughing Margaret" who "danced on the earth." The same Margaret who loved to talk and laugh in Tony's in the 1940s loved to talk and laugh with her friends in the 1980s. "Thanks for the Saving Laughter" she wrote in my copy of Jason's Quest. "Yes indeed," her friends would agree, "Thank you Margaret."

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