Words are our life. We are human because we use language.
The writer Carol Shields, who has died of cancer at the age of 68, did not start life as a Canadian, despite becoming one of that country's most distinguished literary figures; in fact, she was born and brought up in the same Chicago suburb as Ernest Hemingway.
It is difficult to imagine two writers with more different ways of looking at the world, and the influence of geography on style was perhaps what Shields was alluding to when she said in an interview that Canada had been a "very good country for writers. We don't have a long literary tradition. People aren't intimidated by the ghosts of Hemingway and 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."
That final phrase perhaps defines Shields's fiction - her 10 novels, including The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party, three collections each of short stories and poems, and several plays, biography and critical studies - better than any other. She was frequently praised for her masterful depiction of ordinary lives, and for her ability to present complex and subtle subject material in a deceptively light, comic manner.
She was never to recount epic tales peopled by grand heroes and heroines. Rather, her achievement was to explore everyday triumphs and tragedies in a way that seemed anything but pedestrian, bringing to the task a wit and quiet acerbity that continually cast light on the business of making lives into stories, both in and outside of books.
Shields was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, the daughter of a sweet factory manager and a schoolteacher, and later attended Hanover College, Indiana. During her time there she took part in an exchange programme with Exeter University, and met her future husband Donald, a civil engineer with whom she was to emigrate to Canada in 1957.
Shields lectured at the University of Ottawa from 1977 to 1988 and, after moving around the country, she and Donald finally settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she was professor of English at the University of Manitoba from 1990, and then chancellor of the University of Winnipeg from 1996. The couple moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 2000, where Shields kept up a critical interest in world affairs, books and topics as diverse as trilobites, bees, apples, feminism, geology, evolution and consciousness.
During the early years of her marriage, Shields was largely preoccupied with bringing up five children, although she found time to complete an MA in English literature at the University of Ottawa and to publish her thesis on the 19th-century backwoods pioneer and writer Susanna Moodie. While her children were still small, she began to write poetry, and brought out two collections, Others and Intersect, with a local press.
Her interest in Moodie was to provide her with the inspiration for her first novel, Small Ceremonies, which appeared in 1976, possibly reflecting some of her concerns about her own vocation; its protagonist was a biographer attempting to write fiction for the first time.
By this time, Shields was 40 and, by today's youth-oriented standards, a late starter. But the book's positive reception - it won the Canadian Authors Association award for fiction - and her growing self-confidence convinced her to continue, and two more novels followed over the next six years. In The Box Garden (1977) and Happenstance (1980), she began to develop her exceptional talent for uncovering the extraordinary in the mundane, and the dramatic in the domestic.
It was, however, with two subsequent novels that Shields's reputation really began to be made, not least because she was also discovered by a British audience. In part, it was luck; Christopher Potter, an editor with the fledgling publishing house Fourth Estate, was scouring small Canadian and north American presses, convinced that they were sources of under-appreciated literary greatness. He happened upon Shield's fifth novel, Swann, and promptly snapped it up - together with its author's backlist.
The novel was published in Britain in 1990 as Mary Swann, and its story of four people vying to reconstruct the life of a murdered poetess garnered immediate critical acclaim. Three years later, The Stone Diaries was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and won both a Pulitzer prize and the Governor General's award in Canada. Shields's international reputation was secured.
The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party (1997) perhaps represent most obviously their author's commitment to commemorating otherwise unremarkable lives. In the former, we hear the story of Daisy Goodwill, from kitchen-floor birth to nursing-home death, through childhood, marriage, bereavement, remarriage, motherhood and work. She is, Shields has said, "one of those women who erases herself, who somehow slips out of her own life," and although Shields's purpose in demonstrating this was essentially feminist, the novel is marked by a vast measure of empathy and humour.
Broadly speaking, Larry's Party did the same job for a different gender, recounting a man's life through the metaphor of his obsession with garden mazes. "Men are portrayed as buffoons these days, and I was trying not to do that," remarked Shields, "but men are the ultimate mystery to me. I wanted to talk about this business of men in the world." The novel went on to win the Orange prize for fiction in 1998.
It was shortly after this award that Shields was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of breast cancer, subsequently undergoing a mastectomy and several courses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Throughout her illness, she spoke openly about the possibility - and later, inevitability - of dying, and never failed to impress her many interviewers with her fortitude and good cheer.
She also refused to stop writing, publishing a highly regarded collection of short stories, Dressing Up For The Carnival, in 2000, a biography of Jane Austen in 2001 and a final, Booker-nominated, novel, Unless, last year. She was working on another novel in the months before her death. She was a companion to the Order of Canada, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of the Order of Manitoba.
Shields was supported unfailingly in her illness by her husband and their children. That home life was as important to her as her work is evident from the subject matter of Unless, which tells of a family wrecked by the sudden departure of one of its children. Its narrator is a writer preoccupied with the literary establishment's continual sidelining of women. For Shields, who won for herself a central role in Canadian and world literature - as well as numerous readers - that fate seems highly unlikely.
~ Alex Clark, The Guardian
AIRdirondack Art Project
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