Tuesday, June 19, 2007

i think i love you, margaret laurence

The Canadian education system has been doing a disservice to the memory of Margaret Laurence for such a long time. In Grade 12, we hand kids a copy of The Stone Angel and ask them to connect with the story of an 80 year old woman on the brink of death. Then, when they can't understand how to make that connection, we make them feel as stupid as possible about it. The kids get the sense that Margaret Laurence either (a) sucks donkey balls or (b) is way, way, way above anything they could hope to understand. And so, for anyone who, like me, is a product of the Mike Harris Ontario Educational Curriculum, Margaret Laurence is yet another example of "terrible" Canadian Literature, never to be read again. But it's all such a crime, because Margaret Laurence's novels are an absolute treasure, and if we just asked young people to read one of her books that focus on people at a relatable life stage, the relationship to Margaret Laurence would be completely different indeed.

A Jest of God

by Margaret Laurence

Sitting beside my bedroom window, in the darkness, I smoke and look at the stars, points of icy light in the hot July black of the sky. If only she wouldn't question me. If only I could stop myself from answering. Why can't she ever sleep and leave me alone? Or die.

Why can't she die and leave me alone?

And if she did, it would leave me alone, all right, completely. Would that be any better? I don't mean it, anyway. I couldn't really mean that. Of course we have our ups and downs, she and I. But as for wishing anything bad to happen --

You mean it all right, Rachel. Not every minute, not every day, even. But right now, you mean it. Mean. I am. I never knew it, not really. Is everyone? Probably, but what possible difference can that make? I do care about her. Surely, I love her as much as most parents love their children. I mean, of course, as much as most children love their parents.

In A Jest of God, Rachel Cameron is a 34-year-old woman -- a virgin and a repressed school teacher -- charged with the care and maintenance of her mother and fearful that life is passing her by. Rachel has given up a lot to care for her mother. She had to quit college to look after her mother, and the passive aggressive control that Mrs. Cameron asserts keeps Rachel fearful of romantic relationships and connections to men in general. As a result, Rachel has no connections outside of the world of her mother's control, and seems (at the books opening) to have regressed into the world of the child, under the thumb of a parent. For Rachel, too, if doesn't help that her sister has fulfilled her mother's dreams and has had four children with a stable husband. But Rachel's sister has also moved away, and hasn't visited their mother in seven years. The responsibility for the aging parent, then, falls only to Rachel, and at the opening of the novel it becomes deeply apparent that the weight of this responsibility is too much for Rachel to bear alone.

A chance encounter with a former schoolmate, however, changes everything for Rachel -- Nick asks her out on a date and she is suddenly brought into the world of women. She understands, suddenly, what it means to be connected to another person for reasons other than guilt and responsibility. And though Nick asks her to "take care of" birth control she doesn't, not because she actively wants to be pregnant so much as because she wants the full experience of womanhood. Rachel feels cheated by all the little things she has missed, including the horrors of waiting for her period and the discomfort of dealing with lateness. Eventually, the inevitable happens -- Rachel believes herself to be pregnant, and at one month late, she goes to the doctor to deal with the situation.

But for Rachel, the irony never seems to cease. The pregnancy she hopes and fears that she carries turns out to be a tumour on her uterus -- and when she has to go to the city to have the tumour removed, the small town of Manawaka determines that she has gone for an abortion. The only thing Rachel really desires in motherhood, and she is left with an entire town thinking she destroyed her only chance at that. The tragedy for Rachel is that she really believes that this was her only chance at biological parenthood, but the success is that she begins to see her teaching responsibility as a kind of transient motherhood, and learns to see all parenthood as transient in some way.

The narrative arc of the novel concerns Rachel's growth. Rachel begins the novel in a childlike position. She cows to her mother's whim. She is constantly controlled by her mother's passive aggressive comments about where she should or shouldn't go and who she should or shouldn't see. Even her social life is dominated by the needs and desires of her mother's bridge game, where Rachel becomes a server, cook and cleaner to her mother and her elderly friends. Though Rachel works and earns the money that keeps the family afloat, she is not able to shake off the domination of her mother in her daily life. Rachel is a 34-year-old child, trapped in the role of the dutiful daughter in spite of her role as both caretaker and breadwinner. And the means of control exerted by Rachel's mother is the most damaging thing of all, because it is not overt. Rachel's mother never says that she cannot go out, but instead comments that she could become ill or die while Rachel is out having a coffee or buying cigarettes. She never condemns Rachel's choice of friends, but instead makes quiet comments about what is appropriate or right. And Rachel lives in fear of her mother seeing her step out of place by entering a Tabernacle or talking too long with an inappropriate person. Rachel is controlled not by what her mother says, but by what her mother fails to say, which is perhaps a more troubling form since it cannot be directly challenged.

But when Rachel meets up with Nick, it is as though a 34-year-old woman has been flung directly into her teenage years. Rachel begins to lie to her mother, fabricate where she is going. She leaves in the middle of a bridge game one evening, leaving her mother and her friends to serve themselves. She leaves her mother to put herself to bed often. She goes out for hours without saying where she is. In short, Rachel begins to test the boundaries as she never dared to do when she was a teenager, and begins to challenge her mother in different ways. Though she still apologizes for her actions, and feels responsible for avoiding any pain or discomfort to her mother, she is at least beginning to exercise her own will.

After the tumour discover and subsequent surgery, however, Rachel seems to finally move into adulthood and take for herself the role of caregiver that has been bestowed upon her. She makes the choice to move to British Columbia for a new job, and to take her mother with her -- cleverly, to be closer to her sister to allow the two women to share the responsibility of an aging parent instead of shouldering the burden on her own. At this stage, Rachel learns to ignore the passive aggressive control her mother attempts to display. At one point her mother suggests that being a caregiver must be a burden for Rachel, and she agrees with her mother. When her mother is shocked by this, Rachel can think only, "I am the mother now." This is the crux of the novel -- at its core A Jest of God is a novel of growth, and the tale of a woman who becomes a teenager, and then an adult, all in one summer at the age of thirty-four. A beautiful and memorable book, this should be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever been a child.

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