The Loons by Margaret Laurence, 1970
by Margaret Laurence, 1970
Throughout her life and work Margaret Laurence maintained an abiding interest in the Métis, that mixture of French, Scots, and Indians that originated in the days of the fur traders in the area of the Red River in what is now Manitoba, Canada. As she said in A Place to Stand On (1983), edited by George Woodcock: "There are many ways in which those of us who are not Indian or Métis have not yet earned the right to call Gabriel Dumont [Louis Riel's lieutenant] ancestor. But I do so, all the same. His life, his legend, and his times are a part of our past which we desperately need to understand and pay heed to." Theirs is a story of repression that recapitulates the theme of female oppression in much of Laurence's writing. Just as the Métis tried to maintain their independence from a paternalistic Canadian government in Ottawa, so Vanessa MacLeod struggles to escape the Brick House and her grandfather's influence, and Morag Gunn tries to reassert her inheritance.
"The Loons" is the fifth of eight works collected into the story sequence/novel A Bird in the House (1970). The main force of the book comes from Vanessa as she recalls, and sometimes recalls recalling, scenes from her childhood with varying degrees of insight. Here we see her trying to comprehend Piquette first as "other," then as outsider, and finally perhaps as "sister." "The Loons" tells us that the Tonnerres "did not belong" anywhere, but in The Diviners, Laurence's 1974 novel, we learn from Piquette's brother that their father "was pretty tough on my mother. She was Métis, too, from up Galloping Mountain way. She thought Manawaka was gonna be the big city." On the first page of A Bird in the House we are told that Vanessa's grandfather brought tree seedlings from Galloping Mountain for his property because "they were the trees for him." (He also wears a coat made from a bear from the same mountain.) If Piquette is a descendent from that wild north, so is Vanessa. In 1885 the Métis leader Louis Riel led the North West Rebellion, was defeated, and was executed; in the story Vanessa says, "The voices of the Métis entered their long silence." After a long silence she, too, is learning to use her voice by writing her story. That is why, according to Peter Easingwood, Piquette's story "still remains to be realised as a vital part of Vanessa's own background and cultural heritage."
Everything in Laurence's economical writing is both realistic and symbolic: the wild strawberries beautiful in their setting but adulterated when a Tonnerre youngster sells them "bruised" door-to-door; the squirrels at the cottage that will be tame by summer's end; the presence of Piquette, which is a convenient way of getting rid of Ewen's mother, with her wearying aristocratic pretensions. Even names are important: "Piquette Tonnerre" literally means "the thunder which pricks or stings," and Diamond Lake is renamed Lake Wapakata even as the tourists move in and the Indians move out. If Piquette is true to her father's name, Lazarus, she is in need of a miracle to raise her not from the dead but from her tubercular lameness. If she is true to her own name, she will rouse Vanessa in some way. Perhaps not, however, since the only thunder in the story comes from the café jukebox.
Taking her cue from the Métis poet Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), Vanessa is convinced of Piquette's indigenous nobility, but she soon discovers that "as an Indian, Piquette was a dead loss." It is with her father rather than with Piquette that Vanessa listens to the call of the loons. The scene is made richer by a knowledge of the whole book. Vanessa feels that her father's life was wasted by female oppression, a fact confirmed by her discovery after his death of secret love letters from a French girl he had met during the war. In addition, the dominant motif is the trapped bird, and the loon contributes to the idea that only the freed bird can truly sing. Vanessa's feeling that she "somehow failed" her father links these two ideas. Had she uncovered Piquette's native nobility and helped her "sing," she would also have affirmed her father's secret spiritual freedom.
Four years later Vanessa's disappointment with Piquette has changed to "pique" and even revulsion. She looks at Piquette—earlier her expression was "as though she no longer dwelt within her own skull"—"unmasked," which is another motif in the book, in the desire for happiness, and she glimpses the predicament of the "marginalised indigene."
Three years later, at the age of 18, Vanessa returns to the lake and equates the "half mocking and half plaintive" loon with Piquette's "unconscious" knowledge of her own impending destruction. Just as Ewen's dock has been replaced by the "government pier" and the lake shore by tourist cottages, so the indigenous Indian has become extinct, unable to find a place to be. As Vanessa's mother says, "Piquette didn't get out."
But there is still something of the younger Vanessa in this easy explanation, the would-be writer who liked the idea of doom and destruction, especially for someone like Piquette who tries to cross boundaries and exchange the loon for the Flamingo dance hall. The careful use of tenses ("It seemed to me now") makes it clear that we are getting the 18-year-old's judgments and not those of the 40-year-old writer, who can therefore play an ironic light on these conclusions. The story is full of images of not knowing or not wanting to know ("I did not want to see her"), which should warn the reader against taking Vanessa's insights as exhaustive or even valid. Contrast this dangerous sentimentality with Morag Gunn in The Diviners, who ponders Piquette, arrested "for outrageously shrieking her pain aloud in public places…. What went wrong? Or did it go wrong so long ago that there is now no single cause or root to be found?" At the end of that novel there are several songs written by Jules, including "Piquette's Song," whose final stanza says, "My sister's eyes/Fire and snow—/What they were telling/You'll never know." Both these appraisals point to the complexity of human motivation and psychology rather than to Vanessa's notions of racial otherness and doomed extinction. After Morag gives Jules her eyewitness account of the burning of Piquette, he tells her, "By Jesus, I hate you … I hate all of you." That is a far more raw reaction, more difficult to deal with. Perhaps it is that hatred that Vanessa wants to avoid. Piquette's tragedy, therefore, is not that of the vanished Indian or that of the marginalized other but rather that of the oppressed other, usually the female. After all, Piquette's life with her own people is as cruel as her life with white people, not because she is Métis but because she is a woman.
When Laurence wrote to her editor that "it isn't the strongest story in the collection," she was sensing the complexity of the subject and its unfinished treatment here. But when we place the story into its larger contexts, A Bird in the House and Laurence's other work, we can see "The Loons" as embodying her best qualities, an apparent economic simplicity masking and exposing some of the most complex problems of contemporary living.