Today is International Women’s Day. Since I’ve been trying to feature Winnipeg people and places in What’s Next– I thought today I should do a post about a Winnipeg woman who really put our city on the map. I don’t think I realized the scope of Carol Shields reputation till I moved to Hong Kong in the fall of 2003 just after the Pulitzer Prize winning author had died of cancer.
“Did you know Carol Shields?” I was asked that question in an almost reverential whisper in a Hong Kong bookstore. A few weeks after I’d moved to Hong Kong nearly ten years ago I used my Canadian credit card to pay for some novels at Page One, a well-known chain of Asian book stores. The clerk who handled the transaction wondered where I came from in Canada. “I live in Manitoba, close to the city of Winnipeg”, I told him. The clerk immediately asked if I knew Carol Shields. I said I’d never spoken to Ms. Shields, but I had seen her in person at a book reading, attended a performance of a play she’d written, and I had read almost all of her work. The Hong Kong clerk led me to a table covered with black velvet near the front of the store. It featured a display of Shield’s books arranged around her photograph. “She was a fine author”. His voice resonated with genuine regret as he continued,” I was so sad when I heard she had died”.
Carol Shields the author of novels, non-fiction, plays and poetry wasn’t born in Winnipeg or even Canada, but in Oak Park Illinois. I visited Oak Park in November which was, by the way, also the home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Carol may not have been born in Winnipeg but she lived here from 1980-2000, was a professor at the University of Winnipeg and the chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. Winnipeg serves as a setting in some of her novels.
The first book of Carol’s I read was Swann. I was fascinated by the way a person’s reputation and life story can be shaped, distorted and embellished posthumously by people who have never even met them. (This same theme is elegantly explored in a novel I just finished The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst). However Swann opened my mind to the idea for the first time and it had me rethinking my blithe assumptions about all kinds of historical figures.
I read almost all of Carol’s books after that, but admit I kept a soft spot for Swann, even though it isn’t one of her more well-known works. Stone Diaries her Pulitzer Prize winner tells the story of Daisy Flett, a very ordinary woman, whose life was really anything but ordinary. I remember the first time I read it, my favorite thing about the book were the photographs Carol included. I was so curious about her choice of photos and examined them for a long time. But because the book was fictional the photos were too, and so somehow they didn’t prevent me from imagining the characters looking exactly the way I wanted them to.
I think Carol Shields is a good Winnipeg citizen to feature on International Woman’s Day because in interviews she often talked about how important her role as a mother of five children was in her life. She says she could never have written a novel if she hadn’t been a mother first. Near the end of her life when she was asked about her legacy she said her writing wasn’t her legacy, her children were.
I took a photo of this bronze statue of Carol for my post about the Millennium Library. The library has an auditorium named after Carol. A replica of this statue can also be seen on the Winnipeg Citizen Walk of Fame in Assiniboine Park.