Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Margaret Laurence was born Jean Margaret Wemyss on July 18, 1926, in Neepawa, Manitoba, a small Prairie town 130 miles northwest of Winnipeg. Although both her parents died before she was nine, she remained in Neepawa, where she was raised during the Depression years by her aunt Margaret Simpson Wemyss, who had become her stepmother.

Laurence attended United College, Winnipeg, where she was profoundly influenced by the tenets of the Social Gospel. In 1947 she married John Fergus "Jack" Laurence, an Albertan and veteran of World War II. While he completed his engineering studies, Laurence worked as a journalist in Winnipeg, first for the Westerner and then for the Winnipeg Citizen, a cooperatively owned Socialist daily. Those newspaper pieces contain her reflections on life and culture in the bustling city of Winnipeg. While living there, Laurence became friends with Adele Wiseman, who would later receive a Governor General's Award for her novel The Sacrifice. The friendship between Wiseman and Laurence endured and produced a remarkable correspondence, now published.

Beginning in 1950 Laurence and her husband spent seven years in Africa, where Jack worked on engineering projects in the British Somaliland Protectorate (Somalia) and in the Gold Coast (Ghana). While in Africa, Laurence completed her first book, A Tree for Poverty (1954), a collaborative effort that involved a Polish linguist and Somali interpreters. This remarkable achievement was the first English translation of Somali oral literature.

Returning to Canada in 1957 with her husband and their two young children, Laurence embarked on what was to become her bestknown fiction: a series of related novels and a collection of short stories, A Bird in the House (1970), which deal with a small fictional Prairie town named Manawaka. It was not so much one particular Prairie town, Laurence remarked, but rather an amalgam of many Prairie towns. In 1962 the Laurences separated. Margaret and the children moved to England. The couple divorced in 1969.

Margaret Laurence wrote fifteen books, including several works for children, and a travel memoir, The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963). In her Manawaka fiction, with its forthright portrayal of memorable women, characters struggle against stultifying and hypocritical elements in a small Prairie town. Their lives are a paradigm of any individual's struggle with inner forces that must be confronted if one is to live a full life.

In The Stone Angel (1964), Hagar Shipley, a ninety-year-old proud Prairie woman of Scots-Irish descent and Presbyterian background, recalls her life and contemplates the approach of death without self-pity or sentimentality. Laurence's last and most structurally complex novel, The Diviners (1974), encompasses not only the contemporary story of Morag Gunn as wife, mother, and writer but also stories of Scots ancestors, Canadian pioneers, and Métis. The Diviners also examines the nature of memory and explores the ways in which the present and past shape each other.

After Laurence returned permanently to Canada in 1974, she became active in establishing the Writers' Union of Canada and continued to offer encouragement to fellow writers while working for nuclear disarmament and world peace. Although Margaret Laurence settled in Lakefield, Ontario, she remained a Prairie person who believed that her girlhood in Neepawa continued to shape her vision of life. Margaret Laurence's collection Heart of a Stranger (1976) contains several essays describing the lasting impact of the Prairie years on her personal growth and on her view of the world. She died in Lakefield, Ontario, on January 5, 1987.

Donez Xiques Brooklyn College, City University of New York

King, James. The Life of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1997.

Morley, Patricia. Margaret Laurence: The Long Journey Home. Montreal: McGill- Queen's University Press, 1991.

Thomas, Clara. The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975.

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