That house in Manawaka is the one which, more than any other, I carry with me. Known to the rest of the town as “the old Connor place” and to the family as the Brick House, it was plain as the winter turnips in its root cellar, sparsely windowed as some crusader’s embattled fortress in a heathen wilderness, its rooms in a perpetual gloom except in the brief height of summer. Many other brick structures had existed in Manawaka for as much as half a century, but at the time when my grandfather built his house, part dwelling place and part massive monument, it had been the first of its kind.
- Margaret Laurence, A Bird in the House, 1963
I’m living proof that Neepawa, Manitoba is a town to pass through on the way to somewhere else. I’ve passed through a half-dozen times, always with a vanful of children who, until fairly recently, couldn’t be left to their own devices while I sated my curiosity in the teeny tiny museums of the towns that connect this sprawling country.
Away they would fly past my driver’s side window (the museums not the children), me wistfully staring at what I was missing, carefully tempering each shot of bitterness a creative mind feels at being cut off at the knees.
But today we didn’t drive by the directional signs to Margaret Laurence’s childhood home, real bricks and mortar that double as a literary house in her fictional town of Manawaka. Today, under lengthening shadows, I followed the signs to an empty parking lot behind the vacant Co-Op, across from the lovely Knox Presbyterian church. I sent the youngest around the corner to the Giant Tiger in search of cheap flipflops while the others lounged in the van, feet dangling out the windows, books or games in hand.
Unfortunately, it was 5:30pm and the house/museum was closed for the day: ironic, but not all bad. I disappeared with my camera for a quickie tour of downtown Neepawa, carefully calculating my window of opportunity before someone would come looking for me or I’d be greeted upon my return with the classic “What took you so long?”
I hadn’t read Laurence since my first year in college, her clear words about daily struggles irrelevant to an 18-year-old lacking in real life experience. Timing, as I’ve said, is everything in picking up a book and I felt excited to revisit her work.
We continued on to Riding Mountain National Park, through Onanole to Poor Michael’s Emporium and Bookshop. I made a beeline for the Canadian author shelves which were packed with the usual suspects. Yes to The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House, and her memoir, Dance on the Earth. I passed on a first edition hardcopy of The Diviners which would have completed the Manawaka cycle.
It was 10 o’clock when we finally arrived in Ethelbert. “What took you so long?” my pajama-wearing brother asked, his family half-asleep on the couch, Bella’s birthday cake awaiting our arrival.
“It’s Margaret’s fault,” I told him, which was mostly true.