CAROL SHIELDS: WHY LITERATURE MATTERS
Martin O'Malley, CBC News Online
A writer can’t get a better book review than the one Carol Shields received for her novel The Stone Diaries in The New York Times Book Review in 1993. “The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters,” the review said.
The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and a Governor General’s Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Stone Diaries tells the story of Daisy Goodwill, the fictional heroine who was born in Manitoba in 1905. The book takes us on a journey through the 20th century, examining the life of an otherwise ordinary woman who, thanks to Shields’s deft touch, tells us about the lives of all women.
Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. Two years later, the cancer spread to her liver. Speaking on her illness in 2003, Shields said from her home in Victoria, B.C.: "It's made me value time in a way that I suppose I hadn't before. I'm spending my time listening, listening to what's going around, what's happening around me instead of trying to get it all down."
Her latest novel Unless, completed in late 2001, made the top 10 list of Britain's best-loved books written by women. It was quite a list, topped by Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Shields's Unless edged out Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale from the top-10, relegating Atwood to 11th on the list.
Shields was intensely interested in Jane Austen. She wrote the biography Jane Austen, which won the $25,000 Charles Taylor prize for literary non-fiction in April 2002. Carol’s daughter, Meg, accepted the prize for her mother at a ceremony in Toronto on April 22.
Shields often talked about being a mother, and how motherhood influenced her writing. "I don't think I would have been a writer if I hadn't been a mother," she said. "I wanted to construct something that contained some of these feelings that I had, some of these discoveries or revelations."
The novel that followed The Stone Diaries was Larry’s Party (1997), which was made into a musical, with Brent Carver as Larry Weller, the Winnipeg man who created mazes for wealthy people.
She produced collections of poetry, among them Others (1972), Intersect (1974) and Coming to Canada (1992). She also wrote the plays Departures and Arrivals (1990) and Thirteen Hands (1993) and a book of criticism titled Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (1977).
In addition to her writing, she taught at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and the University of Manitoba. In 1996, she became chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, where she lived for 15 years.
All this, as she and her husband raised five children.
Many assume Shields is a born and bred Canadian, since she spent nearly her entire working life in Canada, living, teaching and writing in Ottawa, Winnipeg and finally Victoria. But she was born in Oak Park, Illinois on the outskirts of Chicago in 1935, the youngest of three children. She moved to Canada when she was 22, after marrying Donald Hugh Shields, who would become a professor of civil engineering. She became a Canadian citizen later. She studied at Hanover College, the University of Exeter in England, then at the University of Ottawa where she earned an MA.
Carol Shields’s impressive literary output reflects the personality of someone who loved her work, loved to write and read, and loved to do all this in Canada. She once told an interviewer Canada is a “very good country for writers. We don’t have a long literary tradition. People aren’t intimidated by the ghost of Hemingway or Faulkner. We’re not big on heroes, either. The concept of heroes is alien. And I think that’s a very telling piece of our national ethos no one deserves to be better than anyone else.”
On the matter of reading and books, especially in the age of the Internet, Shields treasured books you can carry in your purse, read on the subway or on a park bench or a dock.
“Reading is, by definition, a solitary act, and our society tends to look askance at those who pursue their pleasures in solitude,” she told the Vancouver Village in the late 1990s. “But 25 years from now I predict a rediscovery of the book as we know it. Suddenly people will be saying of books: how portable, how compact, how direct, how cost-effective, how intimate, how blessedly silent, how vivid, how enduring, how interactive, how revolutionary!”
Her first novels were traditional, but then she began to experiment, feeling no constraints on trying new things, as if she regarded novels as indeed “novel.” In Happenstance, published in 1980 when she was in her mid-40s, she wrote half the novel from the perspective of the husband, the other half from the perspective of the wife. She used the same technique later in Swann and The Republic of Love.
She specialized in examining women’s lives and inner thoughts, though one of her most popular books was Larry’s Party, which examines the life of a shuffling Winnipeg failure who attains excellence in building mazes. The maze serves as a leitmotif for Shields’ style, for the interior maze of people’s lives and perhaps the God-like perspective of the novelist, as one can only understand the maze by looking at it from above.
“I’m concerned about the unknowability of other people,” she once said.
On the writing of Larry’s Party, Shields said she did her research by interviewing her husband and many male friends. “Men are portrayed as buffoons these days and I was trying not to do that,” she said, “but men are the ultimate mystery to me.”
Eleanor Wachtel, the writer/broadcaster who hosts CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, was a friend of Shields. “I love the way Carol Shields’s mind works,” she said at a tribute honouring Shields in 1999. “Her particular kind of humanity just dazzles me. It’s the foundation of her commitment to writing as a form of redemption. Redeeming the lives of lost or vanished women.”