Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel is a memorable novel. Certainly Hagar Shipley, the narrator, is a character that will stay in my mind for a long time to come. Ninety-year-old Hagar is a proud and very formidable woman. She can also be extremely difficult and curmudgeonly. There were times I wasn't so sure that I even liked her, but I always felt sympathetic towards her. I'm not sure how Laurence managed it, but this woman wrenched my heart despite her incessant bad-temper. And if you've read the book--don't you think Hagar would hate that I just said that?
Born in the mid-19th century in the western Canadian prairies to Scottish parents (her mother died at her birth), she's the only girl in a family of three children. It's not hard to see where she gets her strong will. Her father, a successful merchant, is a tough task-master who's not easily pleased. The story effortlessly moves back and forth between Hagar's childhood, her unhappy and disapproved of marriage to Bramwell Shipley, the years she raised her own two sons, and her old age. In old age it is her older, and less loved son that takes responsibility for caring for her.
It's as a fragile old woman, suffering the indignities of a body no longer under her own control that crushed my heart most. Something none of us want to think about, but most of us if we live such a long life will likely face. A once independent-minded woman is reduced to being cared for rather than being the caregiver. At the end of her long life she now looks back at how she lived her life and the decisions she made, and it's sometimes painful to watch. I read this somewhere--"she is sometimes regretful, but rarely penitent" and it seems so very fitting.
I'm not sure I would have appreciated this book when I was younger. I understand it is widely taught in Canadian schools, and I wonder what students must think of Hagar. I think Laurence is brilliant in her evocation of a woman looking back and seeing her mistakes (and through the passing of time and experience can face and accept them), and she does it in such a deft and sophisticated manner that you don't ever feel sickly sentimental about it. Not to say that she didn't elicit a few tears, but Hagar would probably have hated that, too.
This is the book The Slaves of Golconda chose to read. You can check out everyone's thoughts on the book here and there is a discussion at the Metaxu Cafe (I started the thread last night, but it was being temperamental and didn't save my actual messages, hopefully it will cooperate today), which you are welcome to join. If you haven't read The Stone Angel, this is a book I highly recommend. It's thoughtful and well written and definitely one of the best books I've read this year!