Nora Stovel has been studying Margaret Laurence for nearly two decades. Fellow critic Barbara Pell designates her “the pre-eminent Laurence scholar in Canada.” And rightly so given the documentary evidence: since 1992, I count six editions of or monographs about Laurence’s writing, along with several articles. This new study of Laurence’s “complete writings” thus represents a kind of Stovelian masterwork, much as Laurence’s own final novel, The Diviners (1974), brought together not only her four previous Manawaka fictions but also addressed the breadth of her literary development and range of interests. Divining Margaret Laurence appears at a time of renewed focus upon Laurence and her considerable oeuvre. In recent years two biographies (James King and Lyall Powers) have appeared along with a closely rendered study of Laurence’s African fiction and scholarship (Donez Ziques) and a shorter analysis of her spiritual interests and themes (Noelle Broughton). Stovel’s book includes chapters on Laurence’s early journalism and writing, her five African books, her four children’s stories, her later non-fiction, her much-admired Manawaka novels, and her final, failed attempt at a work of fiction. By way of critical purpose, Stovel argues that, pace Ziques, she is the first to relate Laurence’s African work to her Manawaka cycle and that, overall, her book covers in depth and plentiful detail all important aspects of Laurence’s literary work.
She is right. The book covers the territory fully and is dense in its analysis of each aspect of Laurence’s writing. One might call the study old-fashioned in its prescriptive citation of the work of previous scholars [End Page 239] (especially those who support Stovel’s enthusiastic lines of thought) and in its assiduous attention to the many essays that Laurence herself wrote in part to guide critical thinking of her readers. The fact is that even before her fictional well ran (nearly) dry with the completion of The Diviners, she was deep in thought about the roots and development of her writing and the shape of her vision. One might argue that these matters became, latterly, her great subject. Although she made several stabs at writing a final novel, the dominant emphasis of her final decade (or so) was thoughtful and shaped reminiscence that spoke to the way she wanted to see herself and the way she wanted to be seen by others. Memory is the prevailing force in Dance on the Earth (1989) just as it governs Laurence’s incomplete novel of the same title.
Divining Margaret Laurence will be a highly useful book for students and teachers and a must for Canadian libraries. The chapters on the Manawaka books are rich in their treatment of symbolic patterns and narrative methods, whether or not they are traditional and more experimental. Stovel presents a very deliberate author at work, one who scarcely missed an opportunity to invest a name, a place, an object, or a natural phenomenon with symbolic or thematic reverberation. “Dr. Raven in The Fire-Dwellers is,” for instance, “well named for a harbinger of death” (218), for he brings together bird and death imagery. While too many portentous namings risk appearing overly predictable and even heavy-handed, Stovel sees Laurence’s artistic hand both steady and shiningly stellar. Her “artistry” is outstanding, her “artistic alchemy” extraordinary. She provides a wealth of similar critical observations, even if the sheer density of such fare may leave some readers wondering if and when enough is enough, even for a writer of Laurence’s immense stature in Canada.
An aesthetic case in point is The Diviners. Stovel’s chapter on the novel is enlivened by a detailed discussion of the editing that Judith Jones of Knopf (New York) brought to bear on Laurence’s “loose, baggy monster” (247). Jones had been charged by both Jack McClelland and by Caroline Hobhouse of Macmillan in London to bring the manuscript into publishable form. Describing the many excisions and alterations that Laurence (for the most part) accepted with apparent good...