Hagar Shipley describes a stone angel that marked—and may still mark—her dead mother’s grave. Hagar’s mother died bringing her into the world in 1886, “relinquish[ing] her feeble ghost as [Hagar] gained [her] stubborn one.” Her father, Jason Currie, brought the “sightless” stone angel in from Italy “at a terrible expense” to stand watch over his wife’s plot in the Manawaka cemetery. Though the angel was not the only one in the cemetery, “she was the first, the largest, and certainly the costliest.”
The novel begins with a description of the stone angel—its central symbol, and in many ways a kind of silent twin to Hagar herself. This passage also establishes Hagar’s disdain for meekness or weakness, and the pride—rather than the pain—she feels at having “stubbornly” survived something that took her mother’s own life.
Hagar, now ninety years old and “rampant with memory,” is sure that she herself is as “forgotten in Manawaka” as her long-dead mother is. Though she tries her best not to live in the past and indulge her memories, having come to see a “rarity” in the days that remain of her life, Hagar often slips into reverie. She lives with her eldest son Marvin and his wife Doris, and is well-aware of the fact that they’re frightened of her and her bad habits—such as cigarette smoking and talking out loud while she’s having one of her detours into memory. Hagar’s bedroom in her own house has no lock, and she feels like Marvin and Doris are denying her her freedom and her very humanity in her old age.
This passage establishes the point Hagar is at in her life. She feels constricted by her present circumstances, and as a result spends much of her time revisiting the past in her mind.
Hagar looks back on her childhood: raised in Manawaka, Manitoba, she was a spirited young girl who enjoyed tormenting her governess, Auntie Doll, and dreaded helping her father Jason out at his prosperous general store, the first in their town. Despite her wariness of her father, Hagar can see now that she was always more like him than her brothers, Matt and Dan, who were “graceful unspirited boys” and took after their dead mother. Hagar, on the other hand, was always “sturdy” and direct, bearing her father’s whippings—and her brothers’—with stoicism and defiance. Hagar’s father seemed to both resent and admire her gutsiness, aware that for all the trouble she caused him she “did take after him.”
Hagar has prided herself all her life on her stoicism and sturdiness, and as the novel progresses, it will become evident that these traits are both a blessing and a curse.
Hagar’s best friend in school as a girl was Charlotte Tapper, and the other children in their small school included Lottie Drieser, whose father had left their family and disappeared, Telford Simmons, the son of the town mortician, and Henry Pearl, a large and gawky farm boy who was often precluded from joining the others for afterschool playtime and hijinks around town because of his chores back at home. Hagar recalls getting up to all kinds of trouble with her friends, such as sneaking into the funeral parlor to look at corpses, but also remembers being very clever in school.
This passage introduces some characters whose lives will intersect with Hagar throughout the years as the choices they make and the paths they take pull them apart and bring them back together in unexpected ways.
For all his talk of being a self-made man and “pulling himself up by his bootstraps,” Hagar’s father Jason Currie came from a good family. His father had been a silk importer and a Highlander, and Jason took great pride in teaching his children their family’s clan name, pipe music, and war cry. Hagar loved hearing stories about the Highlanders, and wished that she too could be a fearless Scottish warrior. Jason was a devout man who went to church each Sunday, though Hagar doubted and doubts still if he really believed in and feared God. He never remarried after his wife’s death, though Hagar accidentally learned that he was having an affair with Lottie Drieser’s mother when she spotted them together at the cemetery one afternoon. The woman died of consumption soon after Hagar spotted them together, and she remembers that her father bore the news stoically and unemotionally.
This section demonstrates the Curries’ social standing in the town. Though not wealthy or aristocratic, Jason built their family up and made a name for them in the community. His mingling with Lottie Drieser’s mother—an unmarried woman of, it’s suggested, a lower social standing—foreshadows his own daughter’s subversions of class and social strata in her own relationships, and demonstrates the hypocrisy of Jason’s rejection of Hagar’s choices.
Hagar’s older brothers, Matt and Dan, often helped out at her father’s store, though he never paid them a cent for their work. The clumsy, dull Matt tried to save money to head East to go to college, but gave up when he realized he’d never save enough and instead spent it all on a fighting cock whose neck he wrung after it lost in its first match. Dan, meanwhile, “cultivated illness as some people cultivate rare plants.” Always delicate and frail, he often stayed home sick from school to revel in the attentions and affections of Auntie Doll.
Hagar has always been headstrong and sturdy, but her brothers, despite the privileges and priority afforded to men at the time, remained frail, weak, and shiftless.
As young teens, Hagar and her brothers often ice-skated in winter on a frozen river nearby. One year, on a day that must have been thirty below zero, Dan fell through a patch of thin ice. Matt and Hagar hurried him home, where their father scolded Dan for not watching where he was going. Dan soon came down with pneumonia, and within days, his fever spiked one evening while both Auntie Doll and Father were out of the house. Hagar went to fetch the doctor, but he too was unavailable, and by the time she returned home, Dan had worsened tremendously.
Hagar always saw Dan as someone who played up his illnesses as a way of avoiding responsibility, but now, as he falls seriously ill, it becomes clear that his delicate constitution has been more of a dire threat all along than anyone in the family believed.
Matt informed Hagar that Dan was calling out for their mother, who died when he was four, and suggested that Hagar don one of their mother’s old plaid shawls, go to Dan, and hold him a while. Hagar stiffened and balked at this, not even wanting to “play at being” the “meek woman” she’d never met. Matt, repulsed by Hagar’s cruelty, donned the shawl himself, and cradled Dan for several hours until he died.
Hagar is so afraid of acting in a stereotypically feminine manner, or giving herself over to weakness of any kind, that she refuses to extend a simple act of care and empathy to her dying brother. This is a complicated moment, as Hagar essentially freezes and finds it impossible to act as Matt asks her to.
Hagar recalls one more striking, dark incident from her youth—when she was nearly grown, she and her friends were traipsing through the town dump one July day, a place they admired in spite of or because of its reeking decrepitude. They came upon a huge heap of eggs, from which some “feeble, foodless, bloodied” chicks had managed to hatch. Knowing the creatures would never live on their own, Lottie Drieser crushed the chicks with the heels of her boots while Hagar and Charlotte watched. Hagar was “troubled” by her inability to do the thing that needed to be done—and reminded of the incident with Dan.
A “timid tapping” at Hagar’s bedroom door snaps her from her reverie, and her daughter-in-law Doris—a plain, frumpy woman who often condescends to Hagar and paints herself as a “martyr” for caring for the old woman—enters the room. She asks Hagar if she’d like to come down to have some tea with her and Marvin. Hagar says she wants to stay upstairs for now, but would like Doris to make her a pot for later. Doris says she won’t—she accuses Hagar of dumping down the drain a pot made specially for her the other day. Hagar insists she did no such thing, and, flustered, agrees to come downstairs.
Hagar resents Doris, and the feeling is clearly mutual. The adversarial relationship between the two women shows that neither of them approves of the other’s choices, decisions, or actions. Though they’re family, they sometimes act cruelly towards one another and attempt to destabilize each other when they should be lifting each other up.
As she stands up from her chair, Hagar feels an aching stiffness spread through her body, and as she walks toward the door, she falls and feels a horrible pain behind her ribs—a pain that has been coming more and more often lately. Doris struggles to help Hagar up, but cannot. She calls for Marvin as Hagar unwillingly begins crying—Hagar sees her tears as “the incontinent wetness of the infirm.”
Hagar falls, and, in a moment of shock and frustration, begins crying. She sees her tears as a sign of weakness, and resents them for coming unbidden.
Marvin comes upstairs and helps Hagar up. Her sixty-five-year-old son is generally calm and unshaken, but as he hoists Hagar to her feet, he is visibly upset and says that Hagar’s falling—and Doris’s strained attempts to help her up—have “got to stop.” Hagar blames her fall on the “pesky rug” that Doris has placed in her room, and then both Doris and Marvin slowly help her down the stairs. They all sit down for tea, but Hagar is aware of a strange energy in the room, and sees a “questioning look” pass more than once between Marvin and Doris as they serve her.
This passage makes it clear that Hagar, Doris, and Marvin are all at some kind of breaking point. Hagar has fallen much more than once, and Doris and Marvin having to continually pick her up and right her serves as a metaphor for all the other things they do to keep her “standing” throughout her life.
The three of them live together in a fairly large four-bedroom house Hagar bought for herself years earlier. Doris and Marvin have two grown children, Steven and Tina, who are in their twenties and live on their own. As they have tea, Doris remarks how big the house feels. Marvin suggests that Hagar sell the house and look, together with the two of them, for a smaller home or apartment that’s easier for Hagar to get around in. Hagar feels the pain in her ribs return, and forbids Marvin from ever selling her house. Marvin reminds Hagar that he technically owns the house, as Hagar signed it over to him many years ago. When Hagar protests, Doris and Marvin, visibly upset, accuse Hagar of overreacting and acting like they’re trying to cheat her or take advantage of her.
There is a deep lack of trust between Hagar, Marvin, and Doris. While Marvin and Doris’s concerns are completely valid and come from a place of genuine concern for Hagar’s well-being and the desire to reclaim their own “golden years” for themselves, Hagar believes that any investment Doris and Marvin make in their own happiness is a direct attack on hers.
Hagar apologizes for being a burden, but Marvin and Doris quickly try to placate her and insist she isn’t one. When Hagar again begs them not to sell the house, Marvin says they should leave the conversation alone for now, and gets up to go watch some television. Doris invites Hagar to come along with her to an evening church service. Hagar declines, and Doris says she’ll bring the minister, Mr. Troy, to come call on Hagar later in the week. Hagar tries to dismiss Doris’s offer, but finds that “tact comes the hardest of all to [her]” lately.
The atmosphere within the house is tense and angry, and Hagar herself knows that she is only making things worse with her lack of tact. Still, her stubborn and stoic manners prevent her from feeling like she’s able to make a change in her behavior—she’s too afraid of being weak and vulnerable or being taken advantage of to relent for even a moment.
Hagar feels that her age seems “arbitrary and impossible.” Whenever she looks in the mirror, “beyond the changing shell that houses [her],” she recognizes herself only in her eyes. The eyes, she believes, are the only things that never change—indeed, her other son John’s eyes stayed the same, containing a hopeful sparkle, all his life—even “near the last.” Hagar relents and tells Doris that she can invite the minister over next week.
Hagar hardly recognizes herself—and as she reflects on the loss not only of her youth, her health, and her former self, but of her son John, she softens momentarily.