Margaret Laurence honoured in the hometown she couldn't wait to leave

Margaret Laurence escaped her Prairie hometown as soon as she could, but always said Neepawa, Man., was foundational in much of her writing. Today, she was honoured there as a person of national historic significance.

But the world-famous writer from Neepawa, Man., knew it was crucial to her craft

Richard Wishart (left) and Ivan Traill unveil a plaque honouring Margaret Laurence as a person of national historic significance outside Margaret Laurence House in Neepawa, Man. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Margaret Laurence escaped her Prairie hometown as soon as she could, but the world-famous writer always said Neepawa, Man., was foundational in much of her writing.

Today, she was honoured there as a person of national historic significance.

"It's really us Canadians honouring the best of the best in Canada. These are people that have contributed significantly to the fabric of Canada … and it's a way of connecting Canadians to our history and past," said Roger Schroeder, external relations manager Riding Mountain National Park.

Margaret Laurence is an icon of Canadian literature. (CBC Archives)

On Friday, several dozen townspeople and dignitaries gathered on the lawn of Margaret Laurence House in Neepawa to unveil a plaque in her honour.

"The Manawaka books were written over a 10-year period and earned Laurence a reputation as one of the most important novelists in a formative period of Canadian writing in the 1960s and '70s," Richard Wishart, of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, said during the brief ceremony.

"She made strong, artistic use of her regional roots. She also had a strong feminist voice, which found form in the women at the centre of each of her novels."

One poignant moment came when local author Don Walmsley read excerpts from her essay, Where The World Began, in which she shares childhood memories of her hometown on the Prairies.

In a 1979 interview, Laurence described how her roots affected her writing.

"I think that the prairie background and the land has comes into my writing a very great deal. Now I would find it hard to define. I think it comes out in ways that are totally unselfconscious or subconscious. I think that the idiom in which I write the way in which people talk contains a lot of Prairies idiom," she said.

Beloved writer Margaret Laurence was honored today as a person of national historic significance. 2:39

Laurence's best-known works were set in the fictional town of Manawaka, heavily influenced by Neepawa. Her writing helped establish the Canadian Prairies as a literary setting and contributed to Canada's "literary renaissance." 

She won two Governor General's Literary Awards for fiction — for A Jest of God (1966) and again in 1974 for The Diviners. In 1972, she was invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Laurence established the Writers' Trust of Canada and the Writers' Union of Canada, and mentored many young authors.

There was a time when conservative religious groups called for a ban on her books, describing them as "blasphemous" and "obscene."

People living in Neepawa were also not thrilled when they recognized themselves and their community in her books.

"When some of those books came out, some people felt they saw portraits that struck a little too close to home. Her writing has stood the test of time and that controversy, I think, is in the past," said Blair Chapman, chairman of the Margaret Laurence Home Board.
Margaret Laurence's son, David, hopes this honour will help her memory live on and introduce her writing to a new generation of Canadians. (Submitted/David Laurence)

He is one of the volunteers who organizes literary events at the house as a way of keeping her memory alive.

"As time goes on, the memory fades a little bit. By putting on events that bring people now to the house and give them something enjoyable to participate in with their families, the legacy continues. And the books are her true legacy. … It's what she wrote that will ensure her memory outlasts this monument." 

Laurence's son couldn't be in Neepawa for the ceremony, but David Laurence sent greetings on behalf of her family.

"I think she would have been humbled by the honour, though it might she might have had a laugh about being called historic," he told CBC News from Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Que.

After months of coping with lung cancer, Laurence took her own life on Jan. 5, 1987. She was 60.

Before she died, she was asked about her legacy.

"People sometimes say to me, how long do you think your work will live? I haven't got the foggiest idea and that's the least of my concerns," she told a reporter in 1986. "I sure hope some books keep selling until I depart this vale of tears."

Her books continue to sell in multiple languages. 

"It's my hope that this honour may help her work find new audience — a new audience among the younger generations," David Laurence said.

Margaret Laurence's remains are in the Neepawa Cemetery, near her parents' graves. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

About the Author

Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc