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Carol Shields: Cultural Context

by David Staines

For Carol Shields, art offers a means of confronting the joys and dramas of the human condition:

Years ago, in an introduction to a book of short fiction, the American writer Hortense Calisher talked about the short story being mainly a new world form. Reports from the frontier, she called them, a lovely and accurate phrase that caught my attention. Perhaps, I remember thinking, this is what all of literature is: a dispatch from the frontier, news from the edge. Even given that the edges and centres of society are forever shifting, it does seem to me that the view from the edge offers a privileged perspective. Also freedom from cynicism if not from anger. Also a kind of real or willed innocence which is what I believe every writer must keep alive in order to write.
- "A View from the Edge of the Edge"

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, on June 2, 1935, Carol Warner

. . . stood at the edge, too, by virtue of gender. Where I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, I attended, first, Nathaniel Hawthorne Public School, and when I was a little older, Ralph Waldo Emerson Public School. I knew who these bearded, bespectacled, frockcoated gentlemen were; their portraits hung in a place of honour in our schools. They were writers. They were men. They were dead.
- "A View from the Edge of the Edge"

Later she attended Hanover College in Indiana, graduating with her Bachelor of Arts in 1957. That same year she married a Canadian, Donald Shields, a civil engineer whom she had met while both were studying in England. In 1957 she relocated to Canada: "I didn't know that I would grow up, fall in love with a Canadian, and at the age of 22, immigrate to a country at the northern edge of the continent, a country I knew next to nothing about" ("A View from the Edge of the Edge").

For the next few years Shields concentrated on motherhood, giving birth to five children. As her husband's career advanced, she followed him across Canada. In her late twenties she began writing poetry and on the advice of professors at the University of Ottawa, she published Others (1972) and Intersect (1974). At the same time, she enrolled at the University in the master's program, writing a thesis on Susanna Moodie entitled Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (1976). The thesis, the first in Canada on the work of Mrs. Moodie, investigates the origin of her ideas as they are found in her children's stories and in her novels set in England.

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In the seventies Shields began to pen fiction, her major avenue for imparting her unique view of the world. In her first novel Small Ceremonies (1976), she presents a heroine who, like herself, writes fiction and produces a book about Susanna Moodie. In this novel and in her subsequent fiction, she records the hassles and traffic of daily life, mapping out the ordinary problems of everyday people. Charting the world of middle-class, middle-aged men and women, she observes, often with gentle irony, the rituals of their lives, making her fiction an affectionate maze of middle-class life. This pattern of gentle observation of the world around her continued through her next three novels, The Box Garden (1977), Happenstance (1980), and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982).

 
Swann, Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1995, c1987; cover  

With the publication of Various Miracles (1985), a collection of short stories, and her fifth novel Swann: A Mystery (1987), Shields moved into experimentation in her fiction. While continuing to present ordinary people in ordinary situations, Various Miracles experiments with form rather than subject-matter, employing many different voices to tell the stories. In Swann: A Mystery, she uses four distinct voices to tell the haunting story of the illusive Mary Swann, a poor farmer's wife from rural Ontario whose only book of poetry was published after she was killed by her husband. At the conclusion of the four accounts, the threads of the many-sided narrative come somewhat together at a symposium on the deceased poet.

 
  The Republic of Love, 1992, cover

In the nineties Shields ventured further in experimental writing. She co-authored her sixth novel, A Celibate Season (1991), with Blanche Howard, a good friend and advisor. And in 1992 she published her seventh, The Republic of Love (1992), a romance novel that she made her own. It is the story of Fay McLeod, a thirty-five-year-old folklore scholar, and Tom Avery, a forty-year-old radio disc jockey, who search for love through the problems of the twentieth century. In the end, they merit the happy ending traditional to the romance world.

 
The Stone Diaries. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1993, cover  

In 1993 Shields published her eighth novel, The Stone Diaries, a major achievement that captured international acclaim. The story of Daisy Goodwill Flett whose life spans eight decades, the book follows her life through childhood, marriage, widowhood, a second marriage, motherhood and old age. Written in both the first and third persons, it becomes a telling commentary on her daily activities. Daisy is born in rural Manitoba, moves into Winnipeg, and then travels south to Indiana. After her first marriage, which ends when her young husband dies during their honeymoon, she resettles with her second husband in Canada. After her second husband dies, she takes over a gardening column for the Ottawa Recorder, writing under the pseudonym of Mrs. Greenthumb. This joyous pastime, however, is brief in duration, for the editor gives the column to a staff writer. Recovering slowly from this personal insult, she lives out her life in Sarasota, Florida, where she amuses herself by playing bridge.

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The Stone Diaries brought Shields international confirmation that what she had been writing in her fiction had universal appeal. No life, however small or however banal, is without significance, for insignificance is in the eye of the beholder, not in the ordinary person who is travelling through this long journey.

 
  Larry's Party, [Toronto]: Random House of Canada, c1997, cover

As a contrast with The Stone Diaries, Shields turned now to write a novel from a male perspective. Although she had already used a male narrator in Happenstance, she now structured Larry's Party (1997) as another journey, this time from an awkward adolescent to a settled middle-aged white male. Each chapter is revelatory of a different area of the life of Larry Wellar, an unremarkable man who is chronicled in a remarkable light by Shields's careful observation of everything about him. Whereas The Stone Diaries offers a fictional biography of Everywoman, Larry's Party presents Everyman.

For twenty years, Larry works as a floral designer, then develops an interest in building elaborate mazes out of shrubbery. The maze becomes a metaphor both for the path Larry's life has taken and for Shields's own narrative, which repeatedly folds back upon itself to disclose slowly but surely, more and more of Larry's ordinary life. At the end, Shields incorporates visual analogues to the maze of Larry's world: a handwritten menu for the party Larry and his girlfriend give in honour of his forty-seventh birthday; a map with directions to Larry's apartment and a seating plan for the dinner.

 
Unless: a Novel, Toronto: Random House of Canada, c2002, cover  

In Shield's tenth novel Unless (2002), forty-three-year-old Reta Winters, a writer and a translator, leads an idyllic life an hour's drive north of Toronto until the sudden moment when Norah, her eldest daughter, ends up mute and begging on a street corner with a hand-lettered sign hanging from her neck with the inscription, "Goodness." In this first-person narrative Reta is at times humorous, at other times angry as she confronts the mystery of goodness, "that biddable creature, cannot be depended upon, not yet - I found that out. I have thrown myself into its sphere nevertheless. Goodness is respect that has been rarified and taken to a higher level."

Shields is also a playwright, her publications including Thirteen Hands (1993), which premiered at Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange and has gone on to be performed all across the country. The play presents four actors who play women, most of whom have been weekly bridge partners for forty-three years. In the course of the drama they boast of "a dozen eyes and thirteen hands" which form their bond on Tuesday evenings. Shields also continued her literary criticism, writing a biography of Jane Austen (2001) that continues the tradition she started with Susanna Moodie. She also published Coming to Canada, a collection of her poems, in 1995.

Library and Archives Canada's Carol Shields fonds offers readers the most authoritative study of Carol Shields's creative work, presenting working drafts of her major novels, including Swann: A Mystery, The Republic of Love, The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party. There are also many indications in the fonds of the personal and private Carol Shields, far away from the public figure who cast such a long and steady light on the development of Canadian literature.

Carol Shields died on July 16, 2003.


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