Dance On The Earth

by Margaret Laurence
204 pages,
ISBN: 0771047460

Post Your Opinion
A Vivid Life
by Timothy Findley

THIS MEMOIR is a book about being a woman. It is also a book about being alive and about the giving of life; a book about being a mother - and having a mother.

Dance on the Earth is the last of Margaret Laurence's books, which for some will lend a sadness to their reading of it, a sadness. that will not be justified and should be discouraged from the outset. That we have a book at all is reason to be anything but sad. That we have this book, which is filled with celebration, is reason for celebration in itself. It was written while Margaret Laurence was dying. That fact, though pertinent to the quality of every reflection she cast upon its contents, is not reported in a single sentence.

What Margaret Laurence has to say in this book is always of interest and, often, it is a challenge. It also provokes meditation on the lives of those to whom we are most indebted and those whose lives are touched by our own. It is a thoughtful book, though never philosophical. It also provokes in other ways. But then, it wouldn't be a book by Margaret Laurence it it didn't.

In an early paragraph of Dance on the Earth - a memoir principally concerning the women in her life -Margaret Laurence cautions her readers, never to speak "as though there were only one set of responses in the entire male population." "No generalization," she writes, "should be the rule for either women or men." She adds that she often finds it "excruciatingly difficult" to adhere to -this principle. And, indeed, there are moments in this book that will leave male readers feeling as if they belong to a sex that is universally dedicated to acts of stupidity, thoughtlessness, violence, and meanness of spirit. At one point, following yet another parenthetical putdown of the male sex, I said out loud, "Oh, come on, Margaret Laurence give men some credit!" A few lines later, she did. And, for whatever reason, the sense of this unLaurence-like disparagement was lifted. Perhaps it was simply that her focus had been pulled from the general to the particular. Perhaps it was because she had turned her eye towards individuals and away from group portraits.

At any rate, it seems important to draw attention to these factors in Dance on the Earth because it would be a pity if this book about being a woman went unread by men simply because they were offended by what appears to be a bias in its early pages.

All that being said, the reading of Dance on the Earth moves forward with increasing pleasure and intrigue. This is a memoir that tells what Margaret Laurence revered in the lives of the women who shaped and contributed to her own life. She sets down these lives (and also her own) as being collectively the lives of women who were mothers first and all else second.

She tells the stories of the women who mothered her: her birth mother, her adoptive mother, her mother-in law, and her aunts. She also tells of her friend Adele Wiseman, of Wise man's mother, of her English publisher's mother, and of Sylvia Plath. The cross-lines are numerous: sometimes amusing, but, far more often, angry making and desperate. Every one of these women was presented with the choice of motherhood as sublimation of self or motherhood as survival of self, All of them, including Laurence, chose motherhood also as a means of expression. But for most of these women, the choice of motherhood meant giving up - to some degree, or 'entirely - all hope of becoming "the maker of works., " Being "the maker of works" was exclusively a male activity, and men had devised a hundred ways to keep it for themselves. "What every writer needs," Margaret Laurence once said (she may have been quoting), "is a good wife!" This, as she points out in Dance on the Earth, is what Virginia Woolf found in Leonard. But it is not, on the whole, what the majority of women writers have found. Those who do find it are accused of being "man-eaters" and "ball-breakers." Relationships based on this seeming reversal of roles are often under such heavy stress that they dis integrate from the sheer force of public pressure, from the blind stupidity of sexist perceptions.

These sexist perceptions are generated as much by women as by men - oddly enough, for much the same reason, namely fear. Too many women are afraid, because of what they presume will be other women's censure, to be seen in the company of men who ,don't swagger. The latter is an image chosen only because of its economy, but it sets that fear in place. From the male perspective, the fear lies in being denied the opportunity to swagger. We all know women who close the kitchen door lest it be evident they have gone in there to do the dishes. And we all know men who close the kitchen door lest it be known the dishes are there to be done. The same can be said of every room in the house - including the nursery.

Margaret Laurence's mother, Verna Simpson, was dead by the time Laurence was five. "My mother was my long-lost child," Laurence said, in her adult years. She barely remembered her - the most telling picture being the indelible image of Verna on her deathbed. Thereafter, Margaret Laurence was raised, in the motherly sense, by her mother's sister, Marg or "Mum," as Laurence called her. For a year, Marg Simpson stayed in the back room, playing the classic role of sympathetic housekeeper in a motherless home. But Laurence's father, Robert Wemyss (pronounced "Weems"), and Marg Simpson were practical people and at some point after that first year, they said, "This is crazy - everyone is talking -let's get married." And they did.

It was a marriage that worked out well while it lasted, but unfortunately, Bob Wemyss grew ill and died when Laurence was nine. Marg Simpson never remarried; she devoted herself entirely, despite her ambitions to write, to raising young Margaret and the son who had been born during her marriage. Ile sacrifice of her Mum's personal ambitions was a sacrifice Laurence never forgot, and with her portrait of Marg Simpson she gives a voice to those thwarted ambitions and honour to the woman who endured their thwarting on Laurence's behalf.

Margaret Laurence's mother and aunts were known - to their great displeasure - as "the Simpson girls." Their lives were first explored in Laurence's book of interconnected short stories, A Bird in the House. Verna, Ruby, Velma, and Marg Simpson are all, one way or another, central in that book, just as they were in Margaret Laurence's life. A Bird in the House is the only Laurence fiction she would acknowledge as being more or less "biographical." Margaret Laurence was rightly adamant about this. Far too many readers, including many critics, have claimed (as if they knew better than the author) that her novel The Diviners was autobiographical. Laurence denied it categorically, and turned an effective phrase in the course of that denial. The Diviners, she said, was her "spiritual autobiography" - not the detailed story of her life.

This distinction between actual and spiritual biography is an important one for writers of fiction, and it is especially telling here, when Dance on the Earth is balanced in the scales with The Diviners and A Bird in the House. For readers of all three books, the reading of one must necessarily affect the reading of the others. The facts seem to jibe; the circumstances are often precisely similar -the houses' that are lived in, the people who are encountered, the incidents that illustrate the progress of the given lives and they all seem to be the echoes and the shadows and the mirrored images of one another. How can they not be the same?

They cannot be the same because, in the first place, fiction is- organized in' such a way that the lives and events it portrays unfold in a patterned fashion that allows the reader to find a path from beginning to end. In biography, there is no pattern; there is only progress. Whereas, in autobiography, a pattern can be superimposed on that progress to provide a story line. Reflections on a life, however, are not the, same as the life itself. And the business of all three modes of writing biography, autobiography, and fiction - is the business of providing divergent reflections. This way, an absolute distinction can be made as Margaret Laurence tells her "story" in A Bird in the House, in Dance on the Earth, and in The Diviners. The distinction is worth exploring. The eye that is central to all three tellings was an eye with matchless powers of observation and matchless integrity.

Margaret Laurence knew she would be a writer when she was still a girl. To be precise, it all fell into place in 1940, when she was 14 years old, already convinced her life would be in nursing. She was walking up the stairs in her grandfather Simpson's house when an idea stopped her in her tracks. "I can't be a nurse," she thought. "I have to be a writer." We have been the beneficiaries of that epiphany. And now, with Dance on the Earth, we have the last of what that writer had to say.

Though I have no right to claim this as a certainty, I think it is fair to speculate that the writer Adele Wiseman was Margaret Laurence's closest friend over time. They knew each other from the mid-1940s onward, and shared all the major and all the minor triumphs and tragedies of each other's lives. After Wiseman had published her novel The Sacrifice in 1956, she and Margaret Laurence were discussing the manuscript of Laurence's recently completed This Side Jordan. Wiseman said, "You think that when a book is published" that will be the best thing, that will be wonderful. The truth is -the joy is in the doing."


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us