Carol Shields, the American born Canadian novelist, short story writer, and poet, died from breast cancer on July 16, 2003, at the age of 68.
Shields’ ten novels were bestsellers in Canada, the United States, the U.K., and around the world in translation. Along with her five collections of short stories they won or were shortlisted for many literary awards.
Her most famous novel The Stone Diaries (1993) won Canada’s Governor General’s Award and both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in America.
It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the U.K., as was her final novel, Unless (2002), which was also nominated for the Orange Prize (now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction). Shields won The Orange Prize in 1997 for Larry’s Party.
Along with her friend Marjorie Anderson Shields also edited two very popular anthologies of writing by women from all walks of life, Dropped Threads (2001) and Dropped Threads 2 (2003). In them women discuss themes in their lives that they rarely spoke about: work, menopause, childbirth, a husband’s terminal illness, the loss of a child, getting old, among others.
“Our feeling was that women are so busy protecting themselves and other people that they still feel they have to keep quiet about some subjects,” Shields said.
Shields was born as Carol Ann Warner in 1935 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago (and Ernest Hemingway’s home town).
Shields spent a year, 1955-1956, studying in the U.K, at the University of Exeter on a scholarship. In the U.K. she met a Canadian engineering student, Don Shields. They were married in 1957 and moved to Canada, where Shields became a citizen.
They lived in Ottawa and Vancouver, and in Manchester, England, before settling in Winnipeg, Manitoba (my home town) in 1980. Don taught engineering at the University of Manitoba and Carol was an English professor there. In 1996 she became the Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. The couple retired to Victoria, B.C. in 2000.
Shields novels and short stories are all concerned with ordinary people who are dealing with the joys and stresses of everyday life. Her narratives are told with a spare style and sly humour, but without being condescending or patronizing. One of her strengths is her characters’ immediate relatability.
“I don’t very often see decent people in novels,” she once said. “Some people don’t believe in them, but I do. . . I can hardly think of one novel where you read of a happy marriage. It’s not interesting, I suppose, and in this respect I think literature fails us.”
Shields and her husband raised five children and she didn’t publish her first novel, Small Ceremonies, until 1976 when she was 41. She also wrote three volumes of poetry and several plays.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer Shields had a mastectomy and underwent several rounds of chemotherapy. She stayed cheerful to the end, saying that she had no regrets in life. “I don’t feel I’ve missed out at all – I’ve got my friends, my family, my writing . . . I think I’ve done pretty well,” she said.