Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day. (p. 1)
Hagar Shipley has been through a lot, as you’d expect from anyone who has lived 90 years. Born in a small Manitoba town, she grew up the daughter of a shopkeeper. Her mother died in childbirth, and one of her two brothers also died young. Hagar grew up a strong, independent woman. She did not distinguish herself in any way that was unusual for her time, but her fierce independence and ability to stand up for her rights set her apart from most early 20th-century women. Now nearing the end of her life, Hagar lives with her son Marvin and daughter-in-law Doris, and is rapidly losing the independence she values so highly.
Hagar has lived with Marvin and Doris for several years, but recently her needs have become more acute. She needs professional care, but actively resists any proposed change in living arrangements. She spends a lot of time inside her head, reflecting on life’s highs and lows: the man she married, the sons she raised, the son she lost, and the townspeople who came and went over the years. A portrait emerges that provides tremendous insight to Hagar’s character. The flashbacks are interspersed with present-day events: a visit from the minister, arguments with Marvin and Doris, and various evidence of Hagar’s decline, which she often fails to recognize or acknowledge. Eventually Marvin and Doris convince Hagar to go on an outing, and they visit a care facility. It appears Hagar might actually accept the possibility of living there, and then a startling event dramatically alters the course of the story, and Hagar’s life.
I found this novel very realistic and moving. Despite Hagar’s intense stubbornness and insensitivity, I liked her very much, and I felt very sorry for her as she lost the ability to do things on her own. Marvin and Doris’ characters were less well developed, and they sometimes seemed a bit callous, but I also sympathized with them as they took on responsibility they probably never anticipated. The last chapters were difficult to read, because you knew where the story had to lead, and I was sorry to say good-bye to such a memorable character as Hagar Shipley.