The Diviners (1974), the fifth and final book-length fiction in Margaret Laurence's celebrated Manawaka series, is the story of Morag Gunn, a Manitoba prairie-born novelist and single mother, whose life and works loosely resemble Margaret Laurence's own. The novel, in the breadth of its vision and depth of its socio-cultural engagements, is widely considered to be Laurence's masterpiece, and one of the greatest Canadian novels ever written.
The Diviners departs significantly from the conventional, character-based realism of Margaret Laurence's preceding Manawaka novels and short story collection (The Stone Angel, 1964; A Jest of God, 1966; A Bird in the House, 1970; The Fire Dwellers, 1988) in presenting a grand, sprawling, postmodern, self-reflexive portrait of Canadian life across several generations, races and classes. The novel circles its way back and forth from the contemporary present to the history of Canadian immigrant settlement (Seeimmigration) and concomitant displacement of First Nations and Métis peoples, to an imagined future of environmentally dire yet spiritually hopeful dimensions.
Rivers, horses, ships, hunting, legends, myths (See Oral Literature in English, folklore), soldiers, battles, poetry, ballads, art, preaching, water divining, garbage, gardening and weeds figure prominently in The Diviners, along with more recognizably feminine and writerly motifs such as sexuality, mothers and daughters, domesticity, menopause, publishing and the muse. If The Stone Angel represented Laurence's rewriting of Shakespeare's King Lear in the contemporary feminine, The Diviners is her postcolonial rewriting of The Tempest, with a compassionate highlighting of the "shipwrecked" and "enslaved" poor, the oppressed, the socially denigrated, disabled and mad (See Poverty, Prejudice and Discrimination, Disability), in Canada's supposedly multicultural and egalitarian democracy.
The Diviners came into controversy in Ontario in the 1970s, ostensibly for its salty language, in the eloquent curses of the colourful, visionary Nuisance Grounds keeper Christie Logan, and for its championing of single motherhood in the figure of Morag, who leaves her stable marriage to a Toronto English professor to become a writer and chooses to conceive a child out of wedlock in uncertain economic circumstances. Some critics detect a more powerful covert anxiety in the controversy over the positive portrait of an interracial sexual liaison between Scottish-descended Morag and the Métis songwriter Jules Tonnerre. The controversy caused Margaret Laurence much anguish, even though she was strongly supported by her publisher Jack McClelland and the Writers' Union of Canada.
The Diviners aspires to carve out a hopeful path into a happier future from the desperate injustices and inequities of our shared colonial past, suggesting maternal, and more generally parental, investment in the unknown future; the novel suggests childbearing, childcare, and intuitive thinking, "divining," as models for transformative social understanding and earthcare, no matter how problematic or interrupted their circumstances or origins.
The interracial relationship between Morag and Jules, occasionally ecstatic, sometimes clashing, often distant, but always deeply significant, becomes symbolic, in Margaret Laurence's creative vision, of our displaced, intercultural Canadian situation, where we are all orphaned and adopted, like Morag, and have all become "Métis," like Jules and their daughter Pique: if not by blood, then by our shared displaced and interculturally mixed heritage, offering us the unique contemporary possibility of love - and peace - across traditional boundaries, on a national (and international) scale.
Anne Wheeler directed a tour de force film version of The Diviners in 1993, set in Manitoba and featuring Sonja Smits as Morag Gunn, Tom Jackson as Jules Tonnerre, and Wayne Robson as Christie Logan. Near the end of the film, Morag apologizes to Jules for having abandoned their relationship to become a writer. In the novel, by contrast, Jules chooses to be only sporadically present to Morag and their daughter Pique. Even though she agreed to his nomadic terms from the beginning, Morag is often frustrated by the infrequency of his visits and welcomes his greater engagement with Pique and his passing on of his ancestral heritage and cultural gifts shortly before he dies. Morag applauds Pique's return to Galloping Mountain, the land of her First Nations ancestors and her father's Métis people, as a teenager, even though it involves a painful separation from herself.