New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism

By Greta M. K. McCormick Coger | Go to book overview

Chapter 12
"It Was Like the Book Says, But It Wasn't": Oral Folk History in Laurence's The Diviners

Lynn Pifer

Margaret Laurence novel, The Diviners, effectively re-creates the uses of oral folk history in familial and personal contexts and demonstrates the value of oral traditions in individual characters' lives. Through short snatches of folklore from schoolyard rhymes and songs to family stories, Laurence represents the ethnic coming-of-age of her main characters. Laurence herself notes that her family brought her up with a great knowledge of her Scots background, and her protagonist, Morag Gunn, is raised in much the same way, listening to Christie Logan's tales of her Scottish ancestors. Morag's classmate, Jules "Skinner" Tonnerre, a Métis, or French-Indian half-breed, listens to his father's stories of his ancestor, Rider Tonnerre. Both Morag and Jules depend on family stories for positive identification, but as they grow older, they realize their oral narratives differ from the official versions of history accepted by the larger society. Throughout the course of the novel, Jules and Morag, as well as their daughter, Pique, must come to terms with their ethnic heritage and cultural identity, and their families' quirky tales and stories become more important than they had realized. Laurence's novel is significant because it advocates the importance of oral folk history in individual lives.

Laurence creates a dichotomy between printed text histories, which are alienating and ultimately uninformative, and family stories, which give children the identity they seek. She reinforces this theme by juxtaposing school versions of history with family versions. Although Morag at first clings to her school versions as truth, through her friendship with Jules, she begins to understand that public education presents slanted versions of conquest and domination from the dominators' points of view.

Richard Dorson notes that the community identity of immigrants and minority groups depends upon the development of their own oral folk histories: "Dependent on the spoken, rather than the written word, and strongly bound by ethnic solidarity, these groups perpetuate oral traditions of sufferings and triumphs" (142). Still,

-143-

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