At ninety years old, the frail but stubborn Hagar Shipley—born Hagar Currie in Manawaka, Manitoba in 1886—reflects on her life. As she has grown older, she has found herself slipping more and more often into memories as a way of escaping her confining and unhappy present situation. She lives with her son Marvin and his wife Doris—or rather, they live with her, in a house she purchased many years ago—and constant gastrointestinal discomfort and arthritic stiffness plague Hagar’s every waking moment. As Hagar grows paranoid that Doris and Marvin are planning on sending her away to a nursing home, she retreats into the past with increasing frequency.
Hagar’s mother died bringing her into the world, and since her burial, an expensive stone angel with unseeing, blank eyes has guarded over her family’s plot in the Manawaka cemetery. Raised by her widower father, Jason Currie—a Scottish immigrant from a prominent family of Highlanders who struck out on his own and founded the first general store in Manawaka—alongside two brothers, Matt and Dan, Hagar cultivated a small group of friends in town including Charlotte Tapper, Lottie Drieser, Telford Simmons, and Henry Pearl. Hagar’s brother Dan died as a teenager after a bout of pneumonia. In a pivotal moment that resonates through her life for years, Hagar refused her brother Matt’s requests for her to impersonate their mother and comfort Dan on his deathbed. Hagar’s indecision in that moment was repeated throughout her youth until, frustrated by her stagnancy and feeling constricted by the demands of traditional womanhood, she made a decisive choice that would splinter her family forever. Hagar chose to accept a marriage proposal from Brampton Shipley—an older farmer who lived on the outskirts of town, and whose crass, coarse ways, two grown children from a previous marriage, and dubious finances made him a poor choice in all ways but one: marrying Bram freed Hagar from her strict father’s demands, and allowed her to strike out on her own for the first time in her life.
After stumbling upon a newspaper advertisement for a nursing home called Silverthreads, Hagar’s worst fears are confirmed: Doris and Marvin are planning to send her away. Hagar fears leaving behind her home and the possessions she’s accrued throughout her life. Still, as the days go by, Hagar becomes more aware of the strain she’s putting on Doris and Marvin—her frequent falls require their constant attention and often physical effort, and her stubborn temperament grates on their nerves. Marvin and Doris suggest that Hagar meet with a doctor and get his advice about where to live.
After her marriage to Bram, Hagar’s brother Matt died and her friends around town began viewing her differently. She’d abandoned the social world of Manawaka for Bram, and her only solace was her deep physical attraction to her new husband. Otherwise, his terrible behavior, unclean ways, and blatant disregard for her feelings made their marriage an unhappy one.
Hagar’s meeting with her doctor, and the subsequent X-rays she endures, confirm to Marvin and Doris that Hagar would be better off with professional care, though they refuse to share the results of the tests with her. They attempt to bring her by Silverthreads just to show her the facilities, but the angry and panicked Hagar is closed-off and contemptuous, and insists on being taken home at the earliest possible opportunity. After Hagar continues to wet the bed, rail against Marvin and Doris, and speak coarsely about strangers in public over the next few days, Marvin makes a decision, and tells Hagar definitively that she is going to enter the nursing home in one week.
Hagar bore Bram two children, Marvin and John. Hagar loved John best from the moment of his birth, and constantly favored the boy—who was more sensitive, it seemed, than his older brother—with attention, affection, and special treatment. Even when John began exhibiting wild and rebellious behavior in school—fighting with classmates and playing games of chicken on the railway tracks on a nearby trestle bridge—Hagar could never see her son as anything but perfect. Bram, however, paid the boy almost no attention, even after Marvin, at seventeen, went off to fight in the first World War. After an embarrassing incident in town that forced Hagar to see how much her marriage to Bram had changed her and alienated her from everyone else around her, she chose to pack up her most valuable things—and John—and leave. Bram barely cared, and yet leaving Manawaka, surprisingly, pained Hagar.
Hagar, afraid of being sent off to the nursing home, comes up with a plan to thwart Marvin and Doris’s plan. When Doris leaves her home alone one morning, Hagar takes one of her social security checks and flees, boarding a bus to Shadow Point, a woody nature spot on the coast. Though exhausted upon her arrival, Hagar shelters in an abandoned building and hides out, risking exposure, attacks by vagrants, and starvation in order to retain her independence.
After leaving Bram, Hagar took John and found a job working as a housekeeper to a wealthy former smuggler named Mr. Oatley. The old man took to Hagar, and Hagar relished having a room of her own in the sprawling house. John, however, resented being forced to live in someone else’s house, and began to become more secretive—conducting relationships with girls and communicating with Bram through a series of letters, all without telling Hagar. When the Great Depression hit and John and Hagar lost a large sum of invested money meant to send John to college, John became even more resentful of Hagar, and chose to return to Manawaka rather than face the failure the Depression foisted upon him. After several years, John wrote to Hagar to tell her that Bram was dying, and Hagar rushed off to nurse her husband through his final weeks. Upon her arrival, she found the house in a state of squalor and disrepair—and both Bram and John’s brains addled by their overconsumption of homemade wine. John engaged in reckless behavior, talked coarsely just like his father, and wore his poverty like a badge of honor. Unable to recognize either her son or her husband, it came as almost a relief to Hagar when Bram at last passed away—though the man’s passing shattered John.
Hagar putters around Shadow Point, existing on a small sack of provisions purchased before she left town and walking through the woods. She soon falls victim to her own frailty and exhaustion, though, and as she struggles more, she retreats further into her memories.
Shortly after Bram’s death, John began an affair Arlene Simmons—the daughter of Lottie Drieser and Telford Simmons, Hagar’s childhood friends. Fearing her son’s rejection and also Arlene’s fall from grace, a seeming mirror image of her own, Hagar conspired with Lottie to send Arlene out East to find work. The blow to John was painful, and though Hagar urged him to see that all she ever wanted was his happiness, John reacted in anger and began spending more and more time out, driving through town drunk and making an embarrassment of himself.
Hagar takes shelter in an abandoned cannery, and as night falls, she hears a noise and fears an intruder has come to rob her. The man who enters the dilapidated building, though, is just as frightened of Hagar as she is of him. The man introduces himself as Murray F. Lees, and though Hagar believes that Marvin and Doris have sent him to retrieve her, Murray insists he has no connection to either of them. Drunk and alone, Murray offers to share some wine with Hagar, and as the two of them talk about their lives, they realize that they have both suffered the painful loss of their sons.
One night, back in Manawaka, Henry Pearl came to the door to tell Hagar there’d been an accident. Driving his truck across the trestle bridge—with Arlene in tow—John had come face-to-face with an oncoming train, and drove his car off the bridge. Arlene was killed on impact, but John was taken to the hospital. Hagar arrived just in time to say goodbye to John, who died due to the internal injuries sustained in the accident. Hagar never wept for her boy, though, and felt she had become as unfeeling, unchangeable, and unseeing as the stone angel in the cemetery.
The following morning, Hagar wakes up to find that Murray is gone. She feels ill, nauseous, and cold, and just as her thoughts begin to grow jumbled, Marvin, Murray, and Doris walk into the cannery. Though Hagar initially resists their attempts to remove her, she softens and allows them to bring her into the car, where they tell her the truth—her X-rays revealed a disease in her bowels, and rather than going to Silverthreads, she needs to go straight into a hospital.
On a public ward in a local hospital, Hagar struggles both against the care the nurses offer her and the friendship her fellow patients show her. After she’s moved to a semi-private room, she slowly befriends her roommate, Sandra Wong, a young girl admitted for appendicitis, and begins to accept that her own death is imminent. Hagar receives visits from Doris and a minister, Mr. Troy, as well as Marvin and Doris’s son, Steven. As her condition deteriorates, she struggles to open herself up to the kindness those around her are showing her in spite of all the turmoil she’s put them through. She apologizes to both Doris and Marvin for her behavior, and tells Marvin that he was always a better son to her than John. Hagar’s pain worsens, and as she spends more and more time floating into the “cocoon” her pain medicine offers her, she approaches a state of peace and ease—however, when a nurse attempts to help Hagar drink from a glass of water, Hagar proves herself as stubborn as ever by insisting to hold the glass herself.