Swann was the very first Carol Shields book I ever read and I loved it. I found a copy at my friend Perry’s house this summer when he was giving away books to prepare for a move. I just reread it last week and enjoyed it ever so much once again. The story is told from the viewpoint of four different people and Carol makes sure we know each one intimately before she moves on. The four- a publisher, librarian, biographer and English academic become fascinating characters in Carol’s skillful hands. There is something about each one’s life that is just a little sad. They all think of themselves in some way as experts on the poetry written by an Ontario farm wife named Mary Swann whose writing career is cut short when she is brutally murdered by her husband. In the last section of the book the four meet at a symposium in Toronto where the work of Mary Swann is to be discussed and analyzed by a gathering of literary experts. The book is a cautionary tale about not taking literary analysis too seriously. The New York Times review of the book called it a “gentle satire of English academia.” It reminded me of a poem by Jean Little that I tried to keep in mind when I was an English teacher.
After English Class
By Jean Little
I used to like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
I liked the coming darkness,
The jingle of harness bells, breaking–and adding to
The gentle drift of snow. . . .
But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep–
They all have “hidden meanings.”
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.