August 10 was a big day for the literary community of Neepawa, Manitoba. On that day, the community held the Manawaka Festival, billed as “a celebration of stories” and, in particular, a celebration of esteemed author, Margaret Laurence, who grew up in Neepawa, and used the town as her basis for stories set in the fictional town of Manawaka.
The day began with the unveiling of a plaque that commemorates Laurence as a “Person of National Historic Significance.” Several dignitaries were in attendance, with Cal Martin, visitor experience manager from Riding Mountain National Park, Parks Canada, acting as master of ceremonies. The plaque stands in front of Margaret Laurence Home (in which she lived from 1935 to 1944) and the unveiling ceremony was held there. A good crowd attended part or all of the events, including many local people, but also other visitors from Brandon, Winnipeg and southeastern Manitoba. The Margaret Laurence Home previously had provincial recognition as a historic place, but the new honour is a federal one, giving recognition to Margaret Laurence herself as a person of Canadian historic importance.
Speakers included: Dr. Richard Wishart, representing the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada; Brian Curtis, past president of Margaret Laurence Home; Lane England, who read greetings and a letter on behalf of David Laurence, son of the author; and Don Walmsley, supporter of Margaret Laurence Home and Neepawa’s literary arts. Following the speakers, the plaque was unveiled by Wishart and Ivan Trail, longtime supporter of Margaret Laurence Home. Afterwards, a reception was held with a commemorative cake enjoyed by the public.
The afternoon continued with free admission to Margaret Laurence Home where everyone could explore the rooms used by the author and see artifacts and memorabilia used by her and donated by her family, such as her actual typewriter. Some of the original furniture is also displayed. Readings were also given by several rural Manitoba authors (Donna Besel, Craig Russell and Sharron Arksey), and a “Living Library” was held with six storytellers situated in rooms throughout the home. The gift shop section of the home did a brisk business, selling books by Laurence, as well as those by other Manitoba authors.
The honourable Catherine McKenna, minister responsible for Parks Canada, released a statement on behalf of the Government of Canada, commemorating Laurence’s “national historic significance” as a writer who “revealed her feminist voice by placing strong women at the centre of each of her novels, and helped establish the Canadian prairie as a literary setting.”
Readers of Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka books were also encouraged to visit the Neepawa cemetery to see the angel monument which she used as her basis for her well-known book The Stone Angel. A pamphlet available at the gift shop includes information about Laurence and a map showing the cemetery location.
The committee organizing the Manawaka Festival has hopes that it might become an annual event, but is not yet certain whether this will occur. In the meantime, the public is welcome to explore the house and grounds (admission charged). It is open daily until the end of September, from 10 to 5, or by appointment the rest of the year. Tours are welcome. Telephone 204-476-3612 or 204-476-5622. The house is located at 312 1st Avenue, Neepawa, and is definitely worth a visit for fans of Laurence or those who like to explore historic buildings.