The Tomorrow-Tamer by Margaret Laurence, 1963
by Margaret Laurence, 1963
"The Tomorrow-Tamer," the title story for Margaret Laurence's West African collection of 1963, was written in Vancouver, British Columbia, published in Prism International in the fall of 1961, and awarded the President's Medal of Excellence from the University of Western Ontario for the year's best Canadian short story. The germ for the story came from Laurence's encounter with an African bridge worker on the Volta River in Gold Coast (now Ghana), who a few days after she had met him died in a fall from the top of the bridge. She thought about the accident for many years and rewrote the story 10 times. It became for her a symbol for the clash between two different cultures, the misunderstanding and human cost occasioned by the clash, and the insights gained and adjustments made.
The Tomorrow-Tamer stories, as well as Laurence's novel This Side Jordan, are set in a time of transition from colonial rule to independent nationhood, a time when racial, religious, cultural, political, economic, technological, and other tensions between the colonizers and the colonized were highlighted. As an outsider from both the African and the European communities, Laurence could see the vested interests, the strengths, and the limitations of both sides, and she had her perspectives clarified and contextualized by her reading in 1960 of Octave Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban: A Study of the Psychology of Colonization.
"The Tomorrow-Tamer" deals with the effects on a traditional African village of the building of a bridge. There previously had been only a ferry crossing a half mile downriver. Laurence's cultural and artistic sensitivity in communicating details gives the story its power.
Central to the story is Owura, the god, or spirit, of the river and its sacred grove, from whom the village Owurasu and its people take not just their name but also their overall identity and on whom they "model their behaviour." Theirs is an animistic world, one in which river and forest are spiritually alive and in which the building of a bridge is seen as the coming of a "new being" that disturbs the old divinities. This is a world in which "everywhere spirit acted on spirit, not axe upon wood … nor man upon steel." The question is how the new being, the bridge, is to be fitted into the hierarchy of the traditional gods and the worldview of the villagers. Their answer at the story's end is that, through the sacrifice of Kofi, whom they regard as the priest of the bridge, the structure acknowledges the river god's primacy. The irony is that their conclusion, like the very different one of the English construction superintendent, is based on their limited understanding of Kofi and his motivation. Further, by contrasting the remaking of Kofi's life into a legend with the view his mother and young wife have of him, Laurence subtly undermines any simple answers.
As the foregoing suggests, Kofi is the main character through whom the process of cultural adjustment is portrayed. Initially "no one in particular," the teenager gains the status of a village man over the course of the year or so of the story. He is the first villager to work on the bridge, he marries, and he is recognized by the villagers as the spokesman for his generation. At the same time, however, his perspectives on the village and the bridge change. He develops new loyalties to the bridge and to the bridge workers. In both instances, although he has moved away from certain values and perspectives, even further than his family realizes, his evolving assumptions are still bound to his culture. Dismayed to learn that the bridge workers, with whom he identifies, are itinerant and thus lack the rootedness in community that is so intrinsic to his culture, Kofi at one point resolves to tend the bridge after the others leave, to be its priest. But he later learns that the bridge does not need a priest, and he asks in vain of his friend, ironically named Emmanuel, "What will I do now?" Kofi's answer comes in the story's penultimate scene. On the top beam of the completed bridge, he glimpses "other villages" and "the new road" connecting them that will soon reach through the forest to his own village. In a flash of insight he realizes that it is a road that "would string both village and bridge as a single bead on its giant thread." Exultant at this vision of connectedness and at the accompanying realization that bridge workers could be separate but linked together with their "brothers" in other villages and on other bridges, he understands that his vision of community is too narrow, that other people can have different but meaningful beliefs and perspectives.
In this sense the bridge serves as a symbolic means of crossing a cultural gap, of relating to another perspective, and the new road represents both a coherent outside world and the oncoming future. Rather than simply symbolizing cultural division, the river becomes something that can be crossed. Similarly, Kofi is the cultural bridge worker who, though he dies because he does not yet fully understand the way to survive in the intercultural world, brings different cultures together. His death, which results from his looking directly at the sun, something no regular bridge worker would do, serves as a means for the villagers to reconcile the old and new worlds. In this regard Kofi truly serves as the tamer of tomorrow for his people, the one who converts the future from something threatening into something less dangerous, more understandable.
The rest of the story can also be seen in symbolic terms. In the second paragraph the young Kofi runs "past"—with the word repeated six times—the sacred grove, the shrine, the graves, the old huts, the old men, and even the good huts. The suggestion is that Africa cannot stand still, that the traditional past must be left behind and replaced by a changing future. The paragraphs describing the "Hail Mary Chop-Bar & General Merchant" shop and the delivery truck "God Helps Those" convey the intermingling of old and new religions. When the bulldozers destroy the sacred grove, they reenact the destruction of African tradition and religion as engineered by western European nations, an onslaught with technological and economic as well as religious, racial, cultural, and political dimensions. The disruption of village families by culturally different blacks from coast, city, and desert portrays the difficul-ties of impending independence in a tribally divided nation. In such ways Laurence's story is both sensitive and prescient.
—John Robert Sorfleet