Shields, Carol 1935-2003

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SHIELDS, Carol 1935-2003

PERSONAL: Born June 2, 1935, in Oak Park, IL; died from complications from breast cancer, July 16, 2003, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; daughter of Robert E. and Inez (Selgren) Warner; married Donald Hugh Shields (a professor), July 20, 1957; children: John, Anne, Catherine, Margaret, Sara. Education: Hanover College, B.A., 1957; University of Ottawa, M.A., 1975.

CAREER: Canadian Slavonic Papers, Ottawa, Ontario, editorial assistant, 1972-74; writer, 1974-2003; University of Manitoba, professor, 1980-2000; Chancellor University of Winnipeg, 1996-2000.

MEMBER: Writers' Union of Canada, Writers Guild of Manitoba, PEN, Jane Austen Society, Royal Society of Canada.

AWARDS, HONORS: Winner of young writers' contest sponsored by Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), 1965; Canada Council grants, 1972, 1974, 1976; fiction prize from Canadian Authors Association, 1976, for Small Ceremonies; CBC Prize for Drama, 1983; National Magazine Award, 1984, 1985; Arthur Ellis Award, 1988; Marian Engel Award, 1990; Governor General's Award for English-language fiction, National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, 1994, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1995, all for The Stone Diaries; Orange Prize, 1998, for Larry's Party; Guggenheim fellow, 1999; Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), 2000; shortlisted for Booker Prize and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, both 2002, and Orange Prize for fiction nomination, 2003, all for Unless; Charles Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction, 2002, for Jane Austen; named Author of the Year, Book Expo Canada, 2003. Honorary doctorates from University of Ottawa, 1995; Hanover College, 1996; University of Winnipeg, 1996; Queen's University, 1996; University of British Columbia, 1997; Concordia University, 1997; University of Toronto, 1998; University of Western Ontario, 1998; Carleton University, 2000; Mount St. Vincent University, 2000; and Wilfrid Laurier University, 2000.


Others (poetry), Borealis Press (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1972.

Intersect (poetry), Borealis Press (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1974.

Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (criticism), Borealis Press (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1976.

Small Ceremonies (novel), McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1976, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1996.

The Box Garden (novel), McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1996.

Happenstance (novel; also see below), McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1980.

A Fairly Conventional Woman (novel; also see below), Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1982.

Various Miracles (short stories), Stoddart (Don Mills, Canada), 1985, Penguin (New York, NY), 1989.

Swann: A Mystery (novel), General, 1987, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

The Orange Fish (short stories), Random House (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.

Departures and Arrivals, Blizzard (Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada), 1990.

(With Blanche Howard) A Celibate Season (novel), Coteau (Regina, Canada), 1991, Penguin (New York, NY), 1999.

The Republic of Love (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1992.

Coming to Canada (poetry), Carleton University Press (Ottawa, Canada), 1992.

Happenstance (contains the novels Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman), Random House (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993, Viking, 1994.

The Stone Diaries (novel), Random House (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.

Thirteen Hands (drama), Blizzard (Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada), 1993.

(With Catherine Shields) Fashion, Power, Guilt, and the Charity of Families, Blizzard (Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada), 1995.

Mary Swann, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1996.

Larry's Party (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1997.

(With David Williamson) Anniversary (play), Blizzard (Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada), 1998.

(Editor) Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998, Scribner, 1998.

Dressing up for the Carnival (short stories), Viking (New York, NY), 2000.

Jane Austen (biography), Viking (New York, NY), 2001.

(Editor with Marjorie Anderson) Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told, Vintage Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.

Unless (novel), Fourth Estate (New York, NY), 2002.

(Editor with Marjorie Anderson) Dropped Threads 2: More of What We Aren't Told, Vintage Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.

Author of The View, 1982, Women Waiting, 1983, and Face Off, 1987.

Shields's works have been translated into other languages, including Swedish, Italian, French, Chinese, Norwegian, German, Spanish, Danish, Korean, Japanese, and Polish.

ADAPTATIONS: Swann: A Mystery was adapted for a film starring Miranda Richardson, 1996; several of Shields's novels were adapted as audiobooks.

SIDELIGHTS: "The extraordinariness of ordinary people was Carol's forte," novelist Margaret Atwood noted in an Entertainment Weekly remembrance of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields. Shields, who died of cancer in 2003, is best remembered for her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries, as well as for her highly acclaimed biography of English writer Jane Austen. Praising Shields for her "intellectual daring" and "unambiguous prose," New Statesman contributor Rachel Cusk noted that "reading Shields is like talking to a good friend, someone reassuring and wise who, out of modesty or sympathy, keeps her own heart a secret."

Shields was born in Oak Park, Illinois, the youngest of three children. Her mother was a former teacher, and her father managed a candy factory. After graduating from Hanover College, she met Donald Shields while they both studied in England. They married and moved to Vancouver a year later. She began writing while raising her family, and in 1965 submitted a poem to a young writers' competition, which she won.

When her husband landed a job at the University of Ottawa, Shields began to work toward a Master of Arts degree. Urged by professors who recognized her talent, she put together her first book of poems, which was published in 1972. Four years later she was offered an editing position with a small journal, Canadian Slavonic Papers. As Shields once said, "it was a jobette, really. I worked in a spare room upstairs. I became the Mother who Typed." Shields's first book, Small Ceremonies, was written, in part, from research she did for her thesis on Susanna Moodie. With its publication, she began her long and distinguished writing and teaching career.

Critics have sometimes divided Shields's career as a writer into two distinct phases. Her first four novels—Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Happenstance, and A Fairly Conventional Woman—are portrayals of everyday life, where her protagonists struggle to define themselves and make human connections in their close relationships. Kathy O'Shaughnessy wrote in Observer that Small Ceremonies "is a novel of ideas: about privacy, knowledge of others, about how we perceive each other, and are perceived by others," while London Review of Books writer Peter Campbell, in a review of Happenstance, stated that "Shields writes well about decent people, and her resolutions are shrewder than those in the self-help books."

The next phase of Shields's career is marked by risk taking. With her first short-story collection, 1985's Various Miracles, she began to experiment more with form by using a variety of voices, while continuing to portray ordinary people in everyday situations. Books contributor Andrea Mynard asserted that Shields's "robust realism is typical of the growing sorority of Canadian writers, including Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, who have been gaining a strong reputation. . . . In her accessibly simple and lucid style, Carol intelligently grasps the minutiae of everyday life and illuminates the quirks of human nature. Her observations of contemporary dilemmas are brilliant."

In her 1987 novel Swann: A Mystery Shields continues her experimentation by using four distinct voices to tell the story. In this novel she also develops the theme that will be used in her subsequent work: the mysterious nature of art and creation. Swann, noted Danny Karlin in London Review of Books, "is a clever book, self-conscious about literature, fashionably preoccupied with questions of deconstruction, of the 'textuality' of identity, of the powers and powerlessness of language. This impression is confirmed by its confident and playful manipulation of different narrative modes." Some critics, however, castigated what they considered the author's simple characterizations. New York Times Book Review writer Josh Robins noted that "the characters remain too one-dimensional, often to the point of caricature, to support sporadic attempts at psychological portraiture." The book, which first brought Shields to the attention of U.S. publishers, was later adapted as a film.

Shields took another risk by attempting the genre of the romance novel in 1992's The Republic of Love, but made the form her own by making her main characters wade through the coldness and problems of the twentieth century before reaching the happy ending. "Shields has created a sophisticated [romance] story," stated Books in Canada contributor Rita Donovan. "And the 'happy ending,' so traditional to the romance novel, is here refurbished, updated, and—most happily—earned."

Shields's early novels, while popular with readers, were not taken seriously by critics. Some have argued that in the early part of her career Shields was underestimated as a stylist and her works were dismissed as being naturalistic. Critics generally praised Shields when she began experimenting more with form. Some of her risks were originally considered failures, as in the case of the last section of Swann, in which she attempts to bring all four voices together in a screenplay form. More recent critical appraisal of her works has found more appreciation for such experimentation.

The Stone Diaries is the fictional biography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, whose life spans eight decades and includes time spent in both Canada and the United States. Written in both the first and third person, the story begins with her birth in 1905 in rural Manitoba, Canada. Daisy's mother, extremely obese and unaware that she is pregnant, dies moments later. Unable to care for his daughter, the infant's father, Cuyler Goodwill, convinces his neighbor Clarentine Flett to raise the child. Soon afterward, Clarentine leaves her husband and, taking Daisy with her, travels to Winnipeg, where she moves in with her son, Barker. Cuyler later takes Daisy to Bloomington, Indiana, where he has become a highly successful stonecarver. There, Daisy marries a wealthy young man who dies during their honeymoon. In 1936 she marries Barker, who has become renowned for his agricultural research, and resettles in Canada. In her role as wife and mother, Daisy appears quiet and content, but after her husband dies, she takes over a gardening column for Ottawa Recorder, writing as Mrs. Greenthumb. Her joy—she finds the work incredibly meaningful and fulfilling—is short-lived however, as the editor decides to give the column to a staff writer, despite Daisy's protests. She eventually recovers from the disappointment and lives the remainder of her life in Sarasota, Florida, where she amuses herself playing bridge.

Critical reaction to The Stone Diaries, which won Canada's Governor General's Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, and was also short-listed for the Booker Prize, was overwhelmingly favorable. Commentators have praised Shields for exploring such universal problems as loneliness and lost opportunities and for demonstrating that all lives are significant and important no matter how banal and confined they appear. Others have lauded the novel as a brilliant examination of the divergence between one's inner and outer self, and of the relations between fiction, biography, and autobiography. As Allyson F. McGill wrote in Belles Lettres, "Shields and Daisy challenge us to review our lives, to try and see life honestly, even while 'their' act of authorship only reveals how impossible it is to see and speak objective truth." A Canadian Forum reviewer noted that "Shields demonstrates there are no small lives, no lives out of which significance does not shine. She makes us aware that banality, ultimately, is in the eye of the beholder."

Shields's follow-up to The Stone Diaries was a second award-winning novel, Larry's Party, published in 1997. Shields structures this novel thematically; each chapter covers a different area of Larry's life: his marriages and relationships, his friends, and his children. However, readers also follow Larry as he grows from an awkward adolescent to a somewhat settled, typical middle-aged white male. The "party" is one given by Larry and his girlfriend in honor of his forty-seventh birthday, and which is attended by both of his former wives. Time reviewer Paul Gray wrote that Shields "captures an unremarkable man in a remarkable light."

What is not typical about Larry is his job. After working as a floral designer for twenty years, he develops an interest in, and becomes an expert at, building elaborate mazes out of shrubbery. According to Michiko Kakutani in New York Times, these mazes "become a metaphor for the path his own life has taken, full of twists and turns and digressions. They also become a metaphor for Ms. Shields's own looping narrative, a narrative that repeatedly folds back on itself to gradually disclose more and more details about Larry's past." Commentators have remarked that in Larry's Party Shields portrays Everyman, much as she portrayed Everywoman in The Stone Diaries. Verlyn Klinkenborg, in reviewing Larry's Party for New York Times Book Review, said of Shields that "the mood in which she writes is that of the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream—a mood of complicity and withdrawal, affection and mockery. Like Larry, and like God, she sees the perfect sense that mazes make 'when you look down on them from above.'"

Shields began to attract an international following in the early 1990s, particularly after the American publication of The Stone Diaries. Many of her early novels were published for the first time in the United States and England to much popular and critical acclaim. A Celibate Season, written with Blanche Howard and originally published in 1991, is the story of Jocelyn "Jock" and Charles "Chas" Selby, a couple married for twenty years, who are separated when Jock takes a temporary government job. They make the decision not to communicate by telephone, but rather keep in touch with letters, in which they talk about their lives, children, and marriage. Shields wrote the letters from Chas, and Howard those from Jock. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the authors "skillful writers, and the epistolary form adds dimension to their thoughtful novel of love, marriage, and forgiveness."

In Unless, Shields's final novel, writer Reta Winter should be excited about the response to her first novel; instead she is preoccupied over the reticence of her oldest daughter, Nora. Nora, seemingly withdrawing from life, also withdraws from college, leaving Reta frustrated and looking for reasons, and answers, to Nora's seeming pain. Although a writer, she is voiceless, writing letters she doesn't send, having empty conversations with casual friends, and succumbing to the demands of editors to silence the women's voice in her second novel, a work-in-progress, in favor of a more assertive male presence. "Pain is never far: it's the book's frozen, icy core," Lev Grossman wrote of the novel in Time, "and the most vivid moments in Unless demonstrate the oblique, unexpected angles at which agony can enter our lives—as when Reta impulsively scrawls MY HEART IS BROKEN in the ladies' room of a bar." New Statesman contributor Cusk described Unless as "a formidable meditation on reality: it takes the vessel of fiction in its hands and hurls it to the floor." Praising the novel, Cusk added that the novel "speaks without pretension about its strange and singular subject: the relationship between women and culture, the nature of artistic endeavour, and the hostility of female truth to representations of itself."

Dressing up for the Carnival is a collection of twenty-two stories, many of them previously published. "And yet," wrote Paul Gray in Time, "the result is not as random or eclectic as might be anticipated. Shields . . . displays in all her writing, long or short, a consistently whimsical ruefulness toward her characters and the dilemmas they face, some of which, in this collection, are engagingly bizarre." In the title story, eleven people choose clothing and accessories to take them through the day. Maclean's reviewer John Bemrose wrote that Shields "also specializes in a kind of breezy essay-story—call it Borges-lite—that wittily investigates such topics as keys, inventors, and the cooking habits of an imaginary kingdom. These pieces are heavily theme-driven." In "Dying for Love," three women, who are individually contemplating suicide over love gone wrong, decide that life is worth living. In "Windows" two artists cover their windows to keep daylight from entering when the government institutes a window tax.

"Many of the stories are light and breezy but not unsatisfying," said a Publishers Weekly contributor of Dressing up for the Carnival, "because the characters are winning even in their mostly cameo-like appearances." Time International reviewer Francine Prose wrote that for the couple in "Mirrors," for example, "the decision not to put mirrors in their summer cottage becomes a metaphor for the shifting balance between partnership and solitude, contentment and dissatisfaction, intimacy and concealment." Prose noted that Shields "does a fine job of gauging and charting the subtle but volatile chemistry of domestic happiness, and of depicting the inner lives of her characters."

Prior to her death, Shields also collaborated with fellow editor Marjorie Anderson on Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told, as well as a continuation volume, each containing over thirty essays by noted Canadian women writers. Inspirational in tone, the collections serve to "celebrate . . . the strength of the female spirit in the face of public and private challenges," explained Catholic New Times contributor Colleen Crawley. As Shields noted in her afterword to Dropped Threads 2; More of What We Aren't Told: "Frequently we discover that what we believe to be singular is, in fact, universally experienced. No wonder Holocaust survivors seek each other out. No wonder those who have lost a child turn to others who have endured the same loss. We need these conversations desperately." Dropped Threads 2 was published shortly after Shields's death in July of 2003, following the author's five-year battle with cancer.



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 91, 1996, Volume 113, 1999.

Shields, Carol, and Marjorie Anderson, editors, Dropped Threads 2: More of What We Aren't Told, Vintage Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.


Belles Lettres, spring, 1991, p. 56; summer, 1992, p. 20; fall, 1994, pp. 32, 34.

Book, May-June, 2002, Beth Kephart, review of Unless, p. 76.

Booklist, July, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Larry's Party, p. 1777; April 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Dressing up for the Carnival, p. 1525; January 1, 2003, p. 793.

Books in Canada, October, 1979, pp. 29-30; May, 1981, pp. 31-32; November, 1982, pp. 18-19; October, 1985, pp. 16-17; October, 1987, pp. 15-16; May, 1989, p. 32; January-February, 1991, pp. 30-31; April, 1992, p. 40; February, 1993, pp. 51-52; September, 1993, pp. 34-35; October, 1993, pp. 32-33.

Books in Review, summer, 1989, pp. 158-60.

Books Magazine, November-December, 1994, p. 12.

Canadian Forum, July, 1975, pp. 36-38; November, 1993, pp. 44-45; January-February, 1994, pp. 44-45; January, 1996, Christine Hamelin, "Coming to Canada," p. 46; November, 1997, Merna Summers, review of Larry's Party, p. 38.

Canadian Literature, summer, 1989, pp. 158-60; autumn, 1991, pp. 149-50; spring, 1995.

Catholic New Times September 7, 2003, Colleen Crawley, review of Dropped Threads 2, p. 18.

Chatelaine, April, 1996, Leslie Hughes, "The Shields Diaries," p. 110; May, 2003, Bonnie Schiedel, review of Dropped Threads 2, p. 36.

Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 1990, pp. 10-11.

Critique, spring, 2003, p. 313.

Detroit Free Press, September 7, 1997.

Entertainment Weekly, September 19, 1997, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of Larry's Party, p. 78; May 31, 2002, Karen Valby, "No Tears" (interview), p. 70.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1976, p. 559; March 15, 2000, review of Dressing up for the Carnival, p. 328.

Library Journal, August, 1997, Ann Irvine, review of Larry's Party, p. 135; June 15, 1998, Jo Carr, review of Larry's Party, p. 122.

London Review of Books, September 27, 1990, pp. 20-21; March 21, 1991, p. 20; May 28, 1992, p. 22; September 9, 1993, p. 19.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 20, 1989, p. 2; April 17, 1994, pp. 3, 7.

Maclean's, October 11, 1993, p. 74; September 29, 1997, Diane Turbide, "The Masculine Maze: Carol Shields Gets Inside the Head of the Ordinary Guy," p. 82; March 20, 2000, John Bemrose, "Enriching a Fictional Universe: In Her New Collection of Short Stories, Carol Shields Proves Adept at Finding Wonder in the Unremarkable," p. 66.

Ms., January-February, 1996, Sandy M. Fernandez, reviews of Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, p. 90.

New Statesman, August 20, 1993, p. 40; April 29, 2002, Rachel Cusk, review of Unless, p. 47.

Newsweek, October 6, 1997, Laura Shapiro, review of Larry's Party, p. 76.

New York, March 7, 1994.

New Yorker, May 20, 2002, review of Unless, p. 113.

New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000, Joyce Carol Oates, review of Dressing up for the Carnival, p. 38.

New York Times, July 17, 1989, p. C15; May 10, 1995.

New York Times Book Review, August 6, 1989, p. 11; August 12, 1990, p. 28; March 1, 1992, pp. 14, 16; March 14, 1992; March 27, 1994, pp. 3, 14; January 7, 1996, Claire Messud, "Why So Gloomy?," p. 12; August 26, 1997, Michiko Kakutani, "Br'er Rabbit, Ordinary in Nearly Every Way;" September 7, 1997, Verlyn Klinkenborg, "A Maze Makes Sense from Above," p. 7; June 20, 1999, Michael Porter, review of A Celibate Season, p. 16; June 11, 2000, David Willis McCullough, "Itemize This."

Observer (London, England), February 19, 1995, Kathy O'Shaughnessy, p. 19.

People, October 6, 1997, Paula Chin, review of Larry's Party, p. 43.

Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, winter, 1998, Karen Bell, "Carol Shields: All These Years Later, Still Digging," p. 4.

Publishers Weekly, February 28, 1994; August 11, 1997, review of Larry's Party, p. 383; April 26, 1999, review of A Celibate Season, p. 55; February 28, 2000, review of Dressing up for the Carnival, p. 56.

Quill and Quire, January, 1981, p. 24; September, 1982, p. 59; August, 1985, p. 46; May, 1989, p. 20; August, 1993, p. 31.

Scrivener, spring, 1995.

Spectator, March 21, 1992, pp. 35-36; September 24, 1994, p. 41; May 4, 2002, p. 39.

Time, September 29, 1997, Paul Gray, review of Larry's Party, p. 92; May 29, 2000, Paul Gray, review of Dressing up for the Carnival, p. 82; May 27, 2002, Lev Grossman, "Turning over the Last Page," p. 61.

Time International, February 28, 2000, Francine Prose, "Acts of Redemption: Carol Shields' Book of Stories Brings a Master's Eye to the Transfiguring Aspects of the Everyday," p. 52.

Times (London, England), January 23, 2000, Hilary Mantel, "Full of Domestic Surprises," p. 44.

Times Literary Supplement, August 27, 1993, p. 22; February 17, 1995.

West Coast Review, winter, 1988, pp. 38-56, pp. 57-66.

Women's Review of Books, May, 1994, p. 20.

World Literature Today, October-December, 2003, W. M. Hagen, review of Unless, p. 95.

Writer, July, 1998, Carol Shields, "Framing the Structure of a Novel," p. 3.



Bookseller, July 25, 2003, p. 11.

Entertainment Weekly, December 26, 2003, p. 103.

Newsweek, July 28, 2003, p. 14.

Prairie Fire, autumn, 2003, p. 4.*