Tribute to Carol Shields on the 10th anniversary of her death

When Shields began writing in the 1970s, she wanted to give voice to the stories she felt were overlooked in contemporary literature. Her legacy lives on. Here's what some Canadian authors had to say about her.
Carol Shields continued writing up until she died on July 16, 2003, publishing a biography of Jane Austen and the novel Unless. (Richard Lam)

It's hard to believe that Carol Shields passed away 10 years ago today. Her memory and impact are still very much present for many people. When Shields began writing in the 1970s, she wanted to give voice to the stories she felt were overlooked in contemporary literature. "I wasn't finding in the '70s the kind of novels that had anything to do with my life or the sort of women that I knew. I wanted to write a book that I couldn't find, as it were." The voice Shields felt most comfortable with was the story of "ordinary people." She brought the reader into the minds of domestic women — a place she thought writers weren't taking people. Her books continue to be top sellers, proving that the intellectual journey into the struggles of ordinary people is relevant to this day. You can listen to her last conversation with Eleanor Wachtel here.

Carol was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 1998. The doctors told her she had only three years to live. She continued writing up until she died on July 16, 2003, publishing a biography of Jane Austen and the novel Unless. Both works were critically acclaimed: Jane Austen: A Life won the Charles Taylor Prize, and Unless was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award, the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.

A decade after her death, Carol Shields' legacy lives on. Here's what some Canadian authors had to say about her.

Stacey May Fowles

"Carol Shields had a huge impact on me during my university years. I remember being assigned and reading Swann, and just being enraptured by it, this enveloping mystery featuring an obscure female poet and a feminist literary critic. The novel completely broke with all my ideas of what a mystery could be. The Box GardenThe Republic of Love  books I loved, read repeatedly, and carted around with me through the different phases of and places in my life. Shields had this ability to tell very human stories in such an elegant, monumental way, with complex female characters with vibrant inner lives.

"I remember the day she died I found out because I was in a used bookstore in Vancouver and the owner had put a tiny scrawled note on the counter, saying how she would be missed. I remember that ache, that feeling of hurt, knowing we'd never be able to read new work from her again, and what a terrible loss that was for Canadian literature."

Stacey May Fowles is the author of two novels, Be Good (2007) and Fear of Fighting (2008).

Jen Sookfong Lee

"In April 1995, I was almost 19 years old and sitting on a beach in Hawaii with three of my girlfriends from university. I should have been drunk. I should have been sunbathing and flirting with boys. But instead, I reached inside my backpack, pulled out a copy of The Stone Diaries and began to read.

In retrospect, reading a novel that begins in rural Manitoba seems like a strange choice for a young woman on vacation in Waikiki, but, at the same time, it also wasn't. I'm a Canadian girl. I grew up in rainy Vancouver, where sunshine can often seem like a deeply disappointing myth. I travelled to Hawaii thinking that the heat would flip a switch within me and turn me into the sort of girl who drank piña coladas and floated — tanned and smooth — in a bath-warm ocean. As it turned out, piña coladas made me sick and I'd forgotten everything I once learned about swimming. So, in the middle of a white sand beach, surrounded by brown, shiny bodies, I yearned for home. The Stone Diaries, and Carol Shields' compassionate, clear-eyed treatment of ordinary people that I might have known, tempered my homesickness and I felt, for the first time since I had arrived, comfortable.

Years later, as I was writing my first novel, The End of East, I returned to The Stone Diaries. I had been trying to write what I called a non-fiction novel and the very best example of that was the life of Daisy, who sees and is seen and whose life is fiction even as it is built out of real places and the kind of real feelings that we all recognize. My characters were ordinary. Like Carol, I wanted to make them big, not by inflating their importance or exaggerating their footprints, but by giving their stories the weight we would give prime ministers or war heroes or, even, hockey players. No life is so slight that it can't be valued with a story. Carol Shields taught us that.

Jen Sookfong-Lee is the author of two novels for adults — The End of East (2007) and The Better Mother (2011) — and the YA novel Shelter (2011).

Andrew Pyper

"I remember finishing The Stone Diaries sitting outside the Finch subway station. What was I doing there? Waiting to meet a date? Exploring the neighbourhood? I have no idea. I only remember how I was transported from my surroundings and into the life — the full but, on the surface, unremarkable life — of Daisy Flett. There were no buses coming and going around me, no teenagers flicking their cigarettes inches from my feet. I was wholly in the book. Daisy's life, so unlike mine, somehow my own. Her struggle to find love, to improvise a 'self,' to land in one place only to find the ground beneath her feet a moving sidewalk. Not the story of my life, no. Just the story of all our lives."

Andrew Pyper's latest book is The Demonologist.

Charlotte Gray

"Carol Shields could make the ordinary extraordinary. I loved the Carol that I met through her novels — novels like The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party — long before I met Carol herself. How did she do it? I asked myself. How did she involve me and so many other devoted readers so deeply in the lives of unremarkable 20th-century women? There were the obvious ingredients: careful observation, piercing insights, a rich sympathy for her characters and an elegant, deceptively unassuming style. Details of scarves, casseroles and house-plants are woven into mesmerizing stories of thwarted ambition and marriages under stress. It could easily have been banal. Instead, Carol filled her work with heart-stopping epiphanies. She skewered pretension, self-deception and unkindness, but she never patronized her characters.

"It wasn't until she and I had lunch together one day, in her leafy Victoria sunroom, that I began to understand her particular magic. Carol's fiction, poetry, essays and plays pulsed with Carol's own personality: her many angles of vision, and her layers of perception. Generosity of spirit was spiced with astringent wit. An academic's analytical skills were softened by empathy. We talked about books, about children, about maintaining the balance of writing and family. ('I don't think I would have been a writer if I hadn't been a mother,' she once said. 'I wanted to construct something that contained some of these feelings that I had, some of these discoveries or revelations.') She created literary magic out of her own life, and her own fierce honesty.

"Is it really 10 years since she died? Thanks to my well-thumbed copies of her books, she lives on for me. But I wince as I think of the two or three more remarkable novels we might have had, if cancer had not squeezed the life out of her."

Charlotte Gray is a Canadian historian and author.

Shaena Lambert

"Carol Shields was capable of taking profound ideas and holding them so lightly. I will never forget the moment in Unless where Reta Winters polishes her banisters, taking the time to clean her house, talking about how much she loves to do this. How often do you see a scene like this in literature? Never. You want to scream, "This is dangerous. This is middle class. Don't you know a hundred young men in grad school are going to say, 'I'm reading about dusting!'" But in fact, Carol Shields takes dusting to another level. The gleam of the banister is about the ordinary comforts one can take from the surface of life. Unless is a beautiful, stirring novel, full of grief. And, as the Zen-mindfulness people say, this moment of dusting — where one temporarily produces order out of chaos — may be all we have. Carol Shields knew that."

Shaena Lambert's new book of stories, Oh, My Darling, will be published by HarperCollins Canada this fall.


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