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The Stone Angel (Phoenix Fiction) Paperback – June 15, 1993
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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The Stone Angel is a compelling journey seen through the eyes of a woman nearing the end of her life. At ninety, Hagar Shipley speaks movingly of the perils of growing old and reflects with bitterness, humor, and a painful awareness of her own frailties on the life she has led. From her childhood as the daughter of a respected merchant, to her rebellious marriage, Hagar has fought a long and sometimes misguided battle for independence and respect. In the course of examining and trying to understand the shape her life has taken, her divided feelings about her husband, her passionate attachment to one son and her neglect of another, she is sometimes regretful, but rarely penitent. Asking forgiveness from neither God nor those around her, she must still wrestle with her own nature: "Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear." She has been afraid of being unrespectable, afraid of needing too much, afraid of giving too much, and her pride is both disturbing and inspiring. The Stone Angel is an excellent example of the realism and compassion present in all of Margaret Laurence's writing. -- For great reviews of books for girls, check out Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. -- From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Sonja Larsen
From the Back Cover
With her life nearly behind her, the witty, irascible, and fiercely proud Hagar Shipley escapes from her nursing home and sets out in search of a way to reconcile herself to her tumultuous past. Through her reflections, we come to know the rebellious young bride in a remote prairie town, her love for her two sons, the freedom she claimed, and the joys she denied herself. In this bold, final step toward freedom and independence, Hagar gains a deeper understanding of the meaning of acceptance. Her thoughts evoke not only the rich pattern of her past experience but also the meaning of what it is to grow old and to come to terms with mortality.
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The renowned Canadian author Margaret Laurence's (1926 -- 1987) novel "The Stone Angel" (1964) adds its own layers to the story of Hagar. The story is set in Manawaka, a small fictitious prarie town in Manitoba, Canada and spans roughly the late 19th to mid-20th Century. The main character and narrator is a woman named Hagar Shipley, (born Hagar Currie.). She tells her story when she is a woman, terminally ill, in her 90s. Hagar tells the story of her old age with many flashbacks to and dreams of her long life.
Hagar feels herself an outcast, a loner, and independent, as her Biblical namesake. She is not an entirely likeable person but rather is tough, raw, judgmental, and cantankerous. She has been living for 17 years with her 65 year old son, Marvin and his wife Doris in a small home. At the age of about 80, Hagar took up cigarette smoking. She is demanding and makes life difficult for her son and his wife who themeselves are frail and getting on in years. Marvin and Doris try to persuade Hagar to move to a nursing home, but Hagar refuses and runs away.
Hagar is not an unreliable narrator, but she has blinkers in how she sees herself. Laurence presents her convincingly while also inviting the reader to come to his or her own understanding of Hagar. The story is taut, sharp, and sometimes told with Hagar's withering judgments on herself and others. I find the book secular in outlook although replete with Biblical allusions, including Hagar herself, other Scriptural stories, and the young minister of Marvin and Doris, Mr. Troy, who visits and tries to comfort Hagar at critical moments late in her life.
Hagar was the child of a self-made man, Currie, who owned a successful general store in early Manawaka. She has two brothers and a mother who died when Hagar was very young. We see in the book the deaths of these three men and Hagar's reactions and memories. Hagar's father sent her to the eastern part of Canada to a finishing school even though Hagar felt the money would be better spent by sending her brother to college. When she returns, her father tries to make Hagar a suitable match, but she is uninterested. Instead, she marries Bram Shipley, 14 years her senior. Bram is shunned in Manawaka. Her father refuses to see her after the marriage and cuts her out of his will. She truly becomes an outcast, as was the Biblical Hagar.
Bram's first wife died of natural causes. He lives on a run-down farm but has no interest in working the land. He is taciturn, crude, and vulgar. Hagar with her manners and education, seems swayed by the opinions of others about Bram, but, to her own surprise, she responds deeply to Bram sexually. Hagar ultimately has two children, John, who dies, and Marvin, with whom she lives. She leaves Bram but returns when he dies.
Hagar strives to be independent. She tends to blame others for her misfortunes, but she realizes that when she married Bram she knew much of what he was about. She valued Bram's crudeness, vulgarity, and sexuality. She remained ambivalent, and her pride, particularly, got in the way. She was unable to stand up for what she wanted, but adopted the view of Bram of the higher, more reputable citizens of Manawaka, particularly her father. When Bram dies, he is buried in a plot with Hagar's father and Shipley-Currie is inscribed on the grave. There is some belated reconciliation here, perhaps similar to that which might occur between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac.
When Mr. Troy, late in the book, sings Hagar a hymn about serving God "with mirth" and rejoicing, she has an epiphany of sorts. She says: (p. 292)
"Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out and shackled all I touched. O my two, my dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine? Nothing can take away these years."
As with most people, Hagar straddles uneasily between her insight into herself and her ingrained habits and responses.
This is a thoughtful, well-written book about growing old and about the never ending task of coming to terms with oneself and, as Nietszsche might describe it, becoming who one is. The book reminded me of two other recent works I liked a great deal in which an elderly narrator reflects on the course of his or her earlier life. The first is "Veronica" by Mary Gaitskill, in which a middle-aged but terminally ill narrator gains peace with her earlier life of tawdry sex and sexual exploitation. Veronica The second novel is "So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. In this acclaimed novel, a narrator in his 70s revisits and tries to understand haunting events from his youth, including the death of his mother and a sensational adulterous affair and murder-suicide involving a young friend. So Long, See You Tomorrow These two books, and Laurence's, offer varying understandings of the relationship between old age and youth.
It's too bad that the Kindle e-copy is one of the worst edited I've ever read. Amateurish run-on paragraphing, punctuation errors, word reversals, contraction errors ('shell' for 'she'll', 'hell' for 'he'll', etc.). So many it becomes really aggravating. Does Kindle not engage proof readers?
Otherwise, a magnificent story, perhaps because as we get older we see more and more Hagars around (and in) us.
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The main character is certainly not likeable. And yet I can see some of myself there. A cautionary tale!Read more