KfC’s 2013 Project: The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields

All she’s trying to do is keep things straight in her head. To keep the weight of her memories evenly distributed. To hold the chapters of her life in order. She feels a new tenderness growing for certain moments; they’re like beads on a string, and the string is wearing out. At the same time she knows that what lies ahead of her must be concluded by the efforts of her imagination and not by the straight-faced recital of a thottled and unlit history. Words are more and more required. And the question arises: what is the story of a life? A chronicle of fact or a skillfully wrought impression? The bringing together of what she fears? Or the adding up of what has been off-handedly revealed, those tiny allotted increments of knowledge? She needs a quiet place in which to think about this immensity. And she needs someone — anyone — to listen.

Personal first edition

Personal first edition

That excerpt comes almost at the conclusion of The Stone Diaries, towards the end of chapter nine of ten, as 80-year-old Daisy Flett begins organizing what she knows will be her final thoughts and collected memories of a life lived. For the reader, who is all too reluctantly aware that only a few pages remain in the novel, it is a timely synopsis of the story so far — this is not only a life lived, it is a life well-lived. And we have been privileged to be the “listeners” who were there to share the story.

Before we get to Daisy Flett’s story, let me supply some context. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: The Stone Diaries has a unique fiction prize history that may never be repeated. Carol Shields was born in 1935 in Illinois and spent her childhood and student years in the U.S. — she met and married Donald Shields in Scotland in 1955 and they returned to his home in Canada, where she took out Canadian citizenship. That dual citizenship made this 1993 novel eligible for the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S., the Governor-General’s Award in Canada and the Booker Prize in the U.K. — The Stone Diaries won the first two (along with the non-citizenship-restricted National Book Critics’ Award in the U.S.) and was shortlisted for the Booker won by Roddy Doyle for Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha. Curses to the Booker jury for denying Shields a triple that I am sure will not be approached in the future (Australians with dual U.S. citizenship are allowed to replace the Governor-General award with the Miles Franklin if they want to take on the challenge).

The Stone Diaries is book two in KfC’s 2013 project of rereading a dozen Canadian books that influenced me as a youthful reader, so permit me to add some more background. Shields was born only four years after Alice Munro but is far less well known to international readers because of her untimely death in 2003. When this novel appeared, it is safe to say that her literary reputation in Canada rivalled that of Munro’s (and that of Margaret Atwood, born in 1939, as well). An accomplished short story writer as well as novelist, she deserves to be ranked on every count with those two highly-regarded authors.

The last book reviewed here (The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder) was a “novel-in-stories” which provoked some interesting comments on the technique. The Stone Diaries is very much a novel but if you are looking for an example of the form, it is a classic “novel in stories” — with the additional cachet that Shields chooses to employ some widely varying aspects of her considerable short story writing ability as the story unfolds.

The novel’s 10 chapters start with Daisy’s birth in 1905 and end with her death in 199- (that’s all the author gives us, although we can presume from the date of publication it is early in the decade). While it is Daisy Goodwill-Flett’s story throughout and is in chronological order, the chapters come at almost evenly-spaced 10 year points in her life — with every chapter, the reader is left to speculate on much of what has happened in the intervening years. The device not only makes Daisy’s story richer it adds considerable depth to The Stone Diaries — this novel is not only a life lived, it is very much an examination of a 20th century North American life.

Here’s the opening of chapter one, “Birth, 1905″. It offers a flavor of the voice and approach that will appear in a number of the novel’s “stopping points” as the author chronicles Daisy’s life:

My mother’s name was Mercy Stone Goodwill. She was only thirty years old when she took sick, a boiling hot day, standing there in her back kitchen, making a Malvern pudding for her husband’s supper. A cookery book lay open on the table: “Take some slices of stale bread,” the recipe said, “and one pint of currants; half a pint of raspberries; four ounces of sugar; some sweet cream if available.” Of course she’s divided the recipe in half, there being just the two of them, and what with the scarcity of currents, and Cuyler (my father) being a dainty eater. A pick-and-nibble fellow she calls him, able to take his food or leave it.

The setting is Tyndall, Manitoba: “a dusty, landlocked Manitoba village (half a dozen unpaved streets, a store, a hotel, a Methodist Church, the Canadian Pacific Railway Station, and a boarding house on the corner of Bishop Road for the unmarried men)”. Cuyler Goodwill works as a stone mason in Garson, two miles up the road — his trade introduces a metaphor that will re-appear periodically as the novel progresses (as well as influencing the title).

“Birth, 1905″ is very much like a Munro story in that beneath its gloss of the quotidien it includes its share of surprises which serve to define the parameters of the novel. I am about to engage in spoilers which are necessary for that context, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you can’t stand spoilers. Mercy Goodwill has been unwell, but doesn’t know she is pregnant when she collapses in that Manitoba kitchen. Her cries of pain are heard by a travelling pedlar, known as “the old Jew” in the town, who runs to the house of a neighbor, Mrs. Clarentine Flett, who arrives in time for the birth: “Everyone in the tiny, crowded, hot and evil-smelling kitchen — Mrs. Flett, the old Jew, Dr. Spears, Cuyler Goodwill — has been invited to participate in a moment of history.” Mercy Goodwill dies giving birth and Clarentine Flett will take over raising the young Daisy (and have an even greater extended impact, since she becomes Daisy Flett — but I’ll leave it for prospective readers to discover how that comes about).

On the surface, Daisy Goodwill-Flett’s long life is a mundane one — the beauty of Shields’ novel is how she makes it an extraordinary one. I’ve spoiled enough already so let’s just say that the setting for succeeding chapters will range from Bloomington, Indiana to Ottawa, Ontario to Sarasota, Florida — that geographic range illustrates the “20th century” aspect of the book. It is worth noting that at each of her “stopping points”, the author also supplies a wealth of contemporary detail similar to that recipe for Malvern pudding that opens the book — Daisy’s life may be ordinary but the author is always careful to include details and extended digressions to illustrate what is happening around it.

I have now read The Stone Diaries during three different decades of my own life and have to say that I came away more impressed with the novel with each reading, influenced by the way that Shields has captured not just Daisy’s life but the times and communities of which she is part at each stage where the author has chosen to pause to look into her life. My first reading when the book appeared 20 years ago focused on the wonderful character whose story is being told. My second, roughly a decade ago, added the element of appreciating how well Shields had captured aspects of the century, at least from a well-travelled Canadian point of view.

Both those strengths remained in this reading, but I’ll admit yet another element came to the fore this time around: what a tour-de-force The Stone Diaries is in displaying the breadth and depth of an exceptional writer’s craft. Some chapters (like the first) are told in the first person, looking back in time. Others have a conventional omniscient narrator. One consists entirely of letters sent to Daisy as she recovers from the death of her husband and begins a new life — we know her well enough by then that there is no reason to include her responses. Yet another features first-person perspectives from several different family members and friends on what is happening to Daisy at that stage.

I suspect that that authorly virtuosity had a positive influence on those Prize juries back in 1993 — this is not only a successful novel, it achieves its success through a format that has no comparison in the challenges the author chose to set for herself. Every chapter would stand complete as a short story — taken together, they invite the kind of re-reading again and again that supplies a whole new level of appreciation each time (again, comparisons with Munro at her best come to mind).

In conclusion, my third reading of The Stone Diaries not only showed that it has withstood the test of time, its impact on me has continued to grow. I can’t wait until the time comes around for a fourth exploration of this exceptional novel — I am certain there is yet still more for me to discover.

Book three in KfC’s 2013 project is Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. It is not his most popular title — that would be The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, already reviewed on this site (and by far the most popularly-searched post thanks to its presence on school and university reading lists). Still, Solomon Gursky is well worth the effort. Do join me in the reading (or re-reading) — the review and discussion will be open in mid-March.

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18 Responses to “KfC’s 2013 Project: The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields”

  1. Michèle Dextras Says:

    I loved this book when I read it and I will read it again taking your comments to heart. Thank you.

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    I think I’m going to enjoy this project:)
    Some years ago David Denby had a similar sort of concept (in a more formal way) when he revisited the Columbia University core course in literature that he’d studied as a young man, and the fabulous ‘Great Books’ was the book that resulted from it.
    It takes courage, though. Just recently I toyed with the idea of re-reading The Lord of the Rings but decided not to because I didn’t want to risk spoiling my memory of reading it so long ago. On the other hand I’ve read Ulysses four times now and certainly intend to read it again (though I want to tackle Finnegans Wake first).
    PS Did you know Margaret Atwood is coming to Australia this year? I hope she makes it to Melbourne!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I hope you like the project and, perhaps, find a Canadian book or two to add to your reading list. As I said in the post announcing it, this is a highly personal list — although I think more than a few would be part of any Canadian canon developed by a serious reader. I am pretty sure that I won’t be terribly disappointed by any, although I do expect to find some a little dated.

      Atwood did two events in my hometown yesterday, although I attended neither (I like the early Atwood books but her recent dystopian ones leave me cold and I haven’t even tried the last two). She has a busy year ahead of her — it was announced this week that she is on the Giller jury (for the fourth time) and she is known for taking jury duties very seriously so that means reading about 130 books in the next six months. And the third volume in her dystopian series is out this fall — she toured internationally for the last one, so I suspect that might be one of the reasons for the Australian trip. Although I have to say, from my experience just about everyone in the Canadian literary community jumps at the chance to head to your part of the world for a visit.

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    Well, I never did buy or read no 2 in the dystopian series on the strength of your review…
    I’ve just bought something Canadian to read in the last week or so, one of the Man International nominees?
    *pause, racks brain for name of author without success*
    but I am trying to make a serious dent in some of the books that have been on my TBR too long. Some of which include some Atwoods…
    PS I did read The Stone Diaires, I think it was the first Canadian book I ever read!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I have to confess that it was probably Trevor’s review that convinced you to forego it — neither Alison nor I wanted to read it, so we assigned it to him and said we would only try it if he really liked it. Fortunately for us, he didn’t.

      The Man International “Canadian” is probably Josip Novakovich, whom I had not heard of until the list was announced. His Canadian connection is slim, alas — he comes from Croatia and spent most of his adult life in the U.S. Left there because he couldn’t stand Bush’s America but, from a news story that I read, actually didn’t get his landed immigrant status in Canada until a few days after the Man International list was announced. I do have him noted as someone to explore in the future.

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    “On the surface, Daisy Goodwill-Flett’s long life is a mundane one — the beauty of Shields’ novel is how she makes it an extraordinary one.”

    That comment reminds me of my reaction to the Australian novel, Tirra Lirra by the River written by Jessica Anderson. One could say that the protagonist’s life was rather spare and uneventful, but written by Anderson it’s a marvelous story. One of my best of 2012.

    I’m going to read a Richler next month (decided after your earlier announcement) but I think it’s going to be Barney’s Version.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was struck when reading The Stone Diaries about some of the similarities with Mrs. Bridge, reviewed a few posts back. In some ways, I think Shields’ novel was more ambitious — I am not familiar with the Jessica Anderson novel that you mention.

      If you do read Barney’s Version, you can re-open the debate since it is another of the Richlers already reviewed here.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    It’s my natural pick due to the film connection.

  6. Kat Says:

    I am off to reread my copy of The Stone Diaries!

    It is odd, but I hear very little about Carol Shields now. It was agonizing to read about her death from cancer: I had seen her at a reading not long before that and she was so vital, so down-to-earth, so likable.

    Although I love Alice Munro,I also love Shields’ less showboaty style.

    Thank you so much for this review. I hate to say this, but I had forgotten how much I love her books.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I agree that Shields tends to be overlooked and don’t really know why. I suspect part of it stems from her deliberately restrained style (which I think is one of her strengths) and the fact that her works don’t seem to be the kind that attract teaching attention.

  7. sharkell Says:

    I am a little behind on my reading and I am only half way through The Stone Diaries but I am enjoying it. I find it interesting how she has portrayed Daisy’s father, with the definitive stages in his life, leading from a very restrained man, to a religious man, to a charismatic man, to an almost doddering, ineffectual man. I can’t remember ever coming across a character that has so many discreet and wide-ranging stages in their life.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You make an interesting observation. One thing that is consistent through all those stages is that he is very focused on a single objective that serves to represent that particular stage. I was looking for a way to reference the Manitoba tower in the review but couldn’t figure out how to do it without adding a couple hundred words — it is one of those useful “extended digressions” that Shields scatters through the book.

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