Book Review: The Making of a good biography

By Katherine Fletcher

Nearly 20 years after her death, Margaret Laurence remains an essential figure in Canadian literature. The award-winning author is best known for her Manawaka fiction, including The Stone Angel (1964) and The Diviners (1974). Establishing Laurence as one of Canada’s literary giants, these pieces received dramatic and cinematic treatment and are fixtures on high school and university English course reading lists.

The success of her Manawaka fiction, however, eclipses Laurence’s earlier work. The Stone Angel is often mistaken as her first novel, the debut actually being 1960’s This Side Jordan. Her early works concentrate on Africa, a far cry from the Canadian settings and characters of Laurence’s Manawaka fiction but still deserve all the recognition and respect of her later writing.

Author and scholar Donez Xiques expresses this sentiment in the biography Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer. Xiques’ engagement with Laurence’s work began with her travel memoir and short fiction set in West Africa. Further reading lead the scholar to a burning question.

“How did this woman,” Xiques writes, “born Peggy Wemyss in the Canadian prairies in 1926 and raised there during the years of the Great Depression, become such an accomplished professional writer?”

Having spent over a decade deep in research, Xiques chronicles Laurence’s development as a writer, appropriately concluding the biography in 1963, prior to the publication of the landmark book The Stone Angel.

Laurence’s childhood was submerged in grief. Her mother, Verna, died when Peggy was four. Her father, Robert Wemyss, married his wife’s sister, Marg Simpson, whom the young Peggy adored. Her parents fostered the girl’s early interest in storytelling and making up plays. When Peggy was nine her father died and she and her stepmother moved in with Grandfather Simpson, a notoriously strict and rude man whom Laurence despised well into her adulthood.

Peggy sought solace in writing and, as Xiques illustrates, found several outlets during her youth where she could hone her literary skills. The Winnipeg Free Press has a young authors’ section to which Peggy sent in short fiction. She served as the editor of the Annals of the Black and Gold, her high school paper. In 1944 Peggy left her oppressive home environment to attend three years at United College, where she contributed poems and stories to Vox and The Manitoban. Coming of age during WWII, Peggy’s pieces are often anti-war–during this time she became a Social Democrat and rallied for nuclear disarmament.

In 1947 Peggy graduated from university and wed Jack Laurence. For the next two years she wrote for The Westerner and the Winnipeg Citizen. She began as a labour beat reporter and worked her way to reviewing books and writing a daily radio column. Laurence’s journalism experience, particularly her radio column, was instrumental in her literary development.

The biggest impact of her apprenticeship were the years she and her husband spent in England and colonial Somalia and Ghana. The Somali language and culture fascinated Peggy, and with the help of scholar B.W. (Goosh) Andrzejewski, she translated several Somali poems and prose, resulting in her first book, A Tree for Poverty. Aside from translating Somali literature, Peggy worked diligently on her fiction, sending off stories to various publications. Xiques illustrates Laurence’s determination to become a writer. Struggling with self-doubt, Peggy scrapped several novels set in Somalia and Africa’s Gold Coast. By the time she and her family returned to Canada in 1957, she had completed a rough draft of This Side Jordan and spent the next couple of years finding publishers and writing numerous drafts before releasing the novel in 1960.

Backed up with extensive research, Xiques creates a delightful portrait of a shy, vibrant and strong-minded woman destined to be a fine writer. She brilliantly elucidates the many influences in Laurence’s apprenticeship, from family to friends, teachers to colleagues. The book also includes a previously unpublished story, “Mrs. Cathcart, In and Out of Purdah” and two lesser-known pieces, “A Fable–For the Whaling Fleets” and “A Queen in Thebes.” The accompanying fiction rounds out the already admirable biography, a treat for fans of Margaret Laurence and of Canadian literature.

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