Noelle Boughton’s Margaret Laurence A Gift of Grace: A Spiritual Biography
Women’s Press, 2006

Margaret Laurence is one of my favourite writers and I keep half a reading eye on new biographical or critical work, so I knew that I was missing out on Donez Xiques’ Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer from 2006, but I was simply browsing the 800s, enjoying the A/C on what was an extremely hot day, when I was surprised to spot Noelle Boughton’s volume which was published the same year.

Ironically, it caught my eye not so much because of its subject but because of its format; the biographies from the Women’s Press are smaller than most books, and their paperback covers are brightly — though tastefully — coloured.

I knew this because my copy of Kim Echlin’s work on Elizabeth Smart has nestled on my own literary biography shelf for some years now, and I was extremely pleased to find this eye-catching addition to works written about one of my favourite writers. And now that I’m familiar with their red book (which I finally read earlier this year) and their blue book, you can bet that I’ll be looking for more in this series. (Yes, you can buy their books online: visit their site!)

What makes the volumes in “Women Who Rock” so interesting is that, even if you are quite familiar with their subjects’ lives already (as I was with Margaret Laurence, having read so much about her in the past), the synthesis of information in their volumes casts new light on what you’ve already read and understood to be true about these women.

And, yet, even if you’re relatively new to a writer’s work, as I was to Elizabeth Smart’s, the information is presented in such a way that you feel you have a clear sense of the writer when all’s read and done. Noelle Broughton’s biography serves as a good introduction to Margaret Laurence’s life, quotes from more scholarly texts in an accessible way (highlighting letters and interviews and affording the interested reader ample opportunities to follow up with a more extensive consideration), and simultaneously offers another perspective on a canonical Canadian writer.

Don’t let the idea of a spiritual biography put you off either; that’s not the kind of subtitle that I gravitate towards, but I found the author’s approach to be more accessible than the subtitle suggested. She writes: “I set out trying to define the essence of Margaret Laurence’s spirit, but finished having traced her spiritual journey.”

In fact, one of the aspects of this biography that I most enjoyed was the dimension that the author’s own experiences brought to it; clearly her religious upbringing is a cornerstone in her life, but it’s not such a pervasive element in the text that my having such a different upbringing and outlook interfered with my appreciating the biography.

She writes: “I grew up in the same middle-class, United Church, small-town prairie milieu as Laurence. In fact, once I started researching her life, I found little had changed in our area in the intervening decades, so I was convinced her roots had more impact on her life and work than anyone had yet acknowledged.”

My roots are very different in many ways and yet I still recognized the intense sense of identification that Noelle Broughton found with Margaret Laurence’s works and also the more general love of literature that she expresses in passages like this one:

“”We borrowed books mailed from Winnipeg’s extension service. I’d carefully comb its catalogue for my selections, then, months later, receive completely different books. By junior high, we could buy scholastic and TAB paperbacks at school, and I saved my allowance to buy Nancy Drew books in Winnipeg. But I, like most rural kids, never knew there was a Canadian literature until I got to university in the 1970s.”

For enthusiastic readers of Margaret Laurence’s work, and also for readers new to her writing, Noelle Broughton’s biography from Women’s Press is well worth the time.

What work of Margaret Laurence’s is your favourite? And, if you haven’t yet read her work, what are you waiting for?!