I was introduced to Margaret Laurence as a student, by way of The Stone Angel, in high school English class. I don’t remember much of the related schoolwork, but I do remember my teacher announcing her death (in January 1987).
He seemed uncomfortable when he spoke about it. I couldn’t tell for sure if she had mattered to him particularly, because he often seemed uneasy — arms and legs too long for his body, his shoulders bent forward as though the rest of him could never keep up — but I don’t remember another teacher talking about an author having died, certainly not an author of our time. That stood out.
I do remember a teacher telling our class how sad she was that Elvis had died (I was in grade three when she told the class this story) but this wasn’t the kind of thing that teachers talked about up close, and the authors of the books we read in English class were usually so long gone that they didn’t feel real.
I knew that writers were just “normal” people (Jean Little had been to our school and gave a “talk”, and my mom took me to talks by Lyn Cook and Claire McKay), but this was the first time that I realized I had been studying a book in school by a writer who was living and now was not, whose books were still being read. That stood out, too.
A few years later I came across A Jest of God at the library and read it in one fierce session. I liked it well enough to write down certain passages, which I still have in a notebook somewhere. And well enough to seek out The Diviners. I finished that one on the bus to work on a summer morning, passed my stop to finish reading, which I was glad of for the chance to catch hold of my weeping on the walk back.
I wanted to tell someone about it at work, to explain the power of that novel, but there wasn’t anybody to tell, although I carried the book with me on my lunch and breaks anyway. I felt that something snapped into place that day, and at the time I wasn’t entirely sure what it was, but it was still there when I took that copy of The Diviners with me on a pilgrimage to Lakefield (which Margaret Laurence called home for many years). It’s one of those books that I have multiple copies of, that I’m compelled to collect, like other people collect trading cards and coffeespoons. And that feeling is still there now, as fresh as it was on that summer morning.
As is that compulsion to collect Margaret Laurence’s books. Last year, I bought a hardcover copy of the American edition of A Jest of God at the library sale (even though I already have one or two paperbacks of my own, including one of the M&S pocketbooks shown here). It cost $6, which was high for the library booksale, but it was a true bargain.
Not only was it a nice copy, but the previous owner (Mrs. G.W. Tiffin: her address label is affixed to the cover in a white space) had clipped some newspaper articles that appeared after Margaret Laurence’s death in 1987. Mrs. Tiffin must have read the book many times — or else she loaned it to several friends, which might be why her address label is also affixed to the inner page, if she wanted to ensure it was returned to her — because the copy is very nicely worn, and it’s this copy that I chose to re-read for my Margaret Laurence week.
Favourite authors. Well-read copies. Multiple copies. Does any of this bring back a memory for you?
PS This is the first day of my Margaret Laurence week: if you have any Margaret Laurence thoughts to share, please jump in and chat.