I couldn’t have invented an ethnographic field site more perfect than the Winnipeg River. With Clark’s Corner at its center, it was every bit as iconic as William Foote Whyte’s Cornerville, Elliott Liebow’s Tally’s corner or Elijah Anderson’s a place on the corner. However, as perfect an ethnographic field site, as the Winnipeg River happened to be, ethnographic field research was not remotely the reason I wanted to live there, even if that’s what I said I wanted, and perhaps even more importantly, what people were expecting of me.
I wanted to live on the Winnipeg River for one reason and one reason alone, and that was to look for Manawaka, the fictional Manitoba Township beautifully and painstakingly created by the novelist Margaret Laurence through a series of five distinct but interlocking novels, The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire Dwellers, A Bird in the House, and The Diviners. I knew Manawaka wasn’t a real town. That is, I knew it didn’t exist on any landscapes or appear on any maps. And perhaps even more importantly, I also knew that Manawaka was inspired by the very real town of Neepawa, Manitoba, the landscape town, the map town of Margaret Laurence’s childhood and growing up.
Which was precisely why I was looking for it on the Winnipeg River, a place close enough to the source of its inspiration, but far away enough, to not be reminded of its author and its artifice. There wasn’t any space for Manawaka to exist in Neepawa, with its honorary plaques and museums, celebrating itself as the birthplace of Margaret Laurence, and of course, the series of novels she wrote that forever scrambled its good name. But there was space, however, along the Winnipeg River, where, from the very first time I set foot there, in the summer of 1995, I became haunted by the seemingly impossible suspicion, that Manawaka had somehow, suddenly, become alive. I kept finding myself coming face to face with whole characters and walking in on entire scenes, people’s voices and accents turning into dialogues and story lines, and every stop along the road some fictional setting I had already been. It was unnerving. Like finding the place where all of my readings and re-readings of these novels had been packed and stored away, waiting for me to make my entrance there, as if a stage set for a play.
I was first introduced to Manawaka in The Diviners, Laurence’s fifth and final novel about the town. My mother gave it to me as a gift for my twenty-fifth birthday. This is who we are, she wrote inside the front cover, and by we she meant her and me. It was a particularly appropriate inscription, since The Diviners is a book about the stories people tell to make a place for themselves in the world, and even more specifically, the stories a mother, Morag Gunn, tells herself and her only daughter, Pique. My mother loved The Diviners. The very first time she ever read it, the year it came out in 1974, she finished it in one sitting, and was so sad to reach its end, that she seriously considered getting into her car, driving over to Margaret Laurence’s house, and knocking on the author’s front door. Just so she could stave off the book’s ending a little while longer. Just so she could see if the story could go on a little more.
She never actually did this, of course, but it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. At the time, we were living in Peterborough, Ontario, less than forty kilometers south of Lakefield, Ontario, the small, one-street town where Margaret Laurence had settled in the early 1970s. Laurence had actually written the entire text as well as set several key passages of The Diviners there, a fact, which for my mother was almost too amazing and wonderful to bear. Further proof, she thought, of something of which she was already quite sure. That this novel about a woman from the backwoods of Manitoba, Morag Gunn from Manawaka, Margaret Laurence from Neepawa, was not just a story she could read and love, but also an ancestry she could share.
My mother wasn’t alone in her passion for The Diviners. In Canada at the time it was a highly anticipated novel, the latest installment of an already nationally adored and internationally known literary series, and within Canadian literary and academic circles, Margaret Laurence herself was already something of a celebrity. She was known for her inventive, sometimes experimental and always politically provocative writing; her talent for blurring the lines between past and present, fact and fiction, biography and autobiography; her deeply complex and flawed characters; her poetic riffs on the joys and sorrows of writing; and, perhaps most famously, for selling an earlier Manawaka novel, A Jest of God, to movie star couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who turned it into the critically acclaimed Hollywood movie Rachel, Rachel. In her forward to the University of Chicago re-release of The Diviners, another internationally renowned Canadian novelist, as well as poet, Margaret Atwood, wrote of her profound respect and awe for Margaret Laurence, calling her work an important part of the national pride and feminist fervor that swept Canada in the early 1970s. A pride and fervor, Atwood explains, that for many Canadian women, Laurence later came to symbolize.
So it makes sense to me why my mother loved The Diviners the way she did. She had only been a Canadian citizen a few years in the early 1970s, having emigrated there all by herself from the very small town of Frankenholz, Germany, when she was barely eighteen, with ten dollars in her pocket, so the story goes. She had come there partly for the adventure, but mostly for the chance to shed her identity as her parent’s daughter and her boyfriend’s prospective wife. Which was precisely what she did, finding in Canada a new, young nation, itself struggling towards it’s first few decades of self-actualization and cultural autonomy.
I have a photograph of her from those days. She stands on a stark winter day all buttoned up in a corduroy coat. She looks like that girl in that Canadian painting Julie and the Universe, that painting by Jean Paul Lemieux (see image at the top of this essay). They were, you could say, the perfect match, my mother and Canada in those days. And The Diviners, with its bold and unapologetic Canadian content, fearless independent heroine and brilliant female author articulated all of this, forever sealing into words and sentences everything my mother ever wanted her life in Canada to be: Self-directed. Self-sufficient. Self-governing.
She never wavered, working towards this wanting. Even as the early 1970s slowly faded into new decades and circumstances caused her to leave Canada and immigrate again, this time, to the United States, with my father, brother and me, she still held on to The Diviner’s as the truest statement of who she thought she was, and what she believed was the best and most important piece of herself to pass down, as if a family heirloom, to me. This is who we are, she wrote inside the book’s front cover.
I had never known my mother to make such a definitive statement about her own, let alone our shared identity. Her life, our life, simply never lent itself to such simplicity. My mother and I share many things, of course, like blood and physical traits and all the years of my youth. But we also share a lot of differences, like the countries of our birth, our first languages and accents, our educational backgrounds. So even though I always knew and thought of us as being a family, I never knew or thought of us of as being socially the same, at least not until she gave me The Diviners and in this novel staked for us a common heritage, a common name. This is who we are, she wrote inside the book’s front cover.
I took both the novel and her inscription seriously, which was easy, since just as my mother had twenty years before, I fell in love with The Diviners, too. So much so that when the chance arose to do ethnographic field research on and around Clark’s Corner I took it, unable to resist making a pilgrimage to the one place in the world I was certain Manawaka could be, the Manitoba backwoods.