The importance of place in Carol Shields’ writing is perhaps less immediately evident than that of L.M. Montgomery’s passion for Prince Edward Island or Timothy Findley’s love of Stone Orchard, but it is significant in its own way.
The population of Winnipeg is six hundred thousand, a fairly large city, with people who tend to stay put. Families overlap with families, neighborhoods with neighborhoods. You can’t escape it. Generations interweave so that your mother’s friends (Onion Boyle, Muriel Brewmaster, and dozens more) formed a squadron of secondary aunts. You were always running into someone you’d gone to school with or someone whose uncle worked with someone else’s father. The tentacles of connection were long, complex, and full of the bitter or amusing ironies that characterize blood families.
The Republic of Love
I live in someone else’s whimsy, a Hansel and Gretel house on a seventeen-foot lot on the south side of Chicago. Little paned casement windows, a fairy-tale door, a sweet round chimney and, on the roof, cedar shakes pretending to be thatch. It’s a wonderful roof, a roof that gladdens the eye, peaky and steep and coming down in soft waves over the windows with fake Anne Hathaway fullness.
We live on a steep hill. This is rolling country on the whole, so our rocky perch is a geological anomaly, chosen no doubt because it offered a firm foundation as well as a view. The house is a hundred years old, a simple brick Ontario farmhouse that has been much added on to by its several previous inhabitants, and by us. It has weathered into durable authenticity, withstanding the scorchings and freezings of the Ontario climate.
The towns they pass through are poor, but have seen better days. Sidewalks leading up to lovely old houses have crumbled along their edges, and the houses themselves have started to deteriorate; many are for sale. Dark shaggy cottonwood bend down their branches to meet the graceful pitch of the roofs. Everywhere in these little towns there are boarded-up railway stations, high schools, laundries, cafés, plumbing supply stores, filling stations. And almost everywhere, it seems, the commercial center has shrunk to a single, blinking, all-purpose, twenty-four-hour outlet at the end of town – pathetically, but precisely names: the Mini-Mart, the Superette, the Quik-Stop.
“Milk Bread Beer Ice” The Orange Fish
The house they [the Goodwills] live in faced directly on to the lime kilns of Stonewall. It sat at the end of a dirty road, its porch askew. The windows, flecked with yellow ash from the kilns, went unwashed from one year to the next, and the kitchen roof leaked; it had always leaked. In rainy weather the chimney smoked. Bread baked in this house was heavy, uneven, scarce.
The Stone Diaries
‘You can never tell about the weather here,’ her mother had said, puzzled. This was a point scored against France, a plus for Manitoba, where you at least knew what to expect. “Sailors Lost at Sea”
And that’s when he really knew how cold the wind had got. It puffed his shirt-sleeves up like a couple of balloons, so that all of a sudden he had these huge brand-new muscles. Superman. This it shifted around quick, and there he was with his shirt pressed flat against his arms and chest, puny and shrunk-up. The next minute he was inflated again. Then it all got sucked out. In and out, in and out. The windiest city in the country, in North America. It really was.
The Sloans have even acquired something of the Paris look of indifference and suffering, elbows tucked close to the body, feet sturdily planted, eyes directed inward as though recalling past holidays or rehearsing those to come: Brittany, the Alps, the spicy smell of forests, distances and vistas, here and yet not here, the Gallic knack of being everywhere and nowhere, or possessing everything and nothing.
“Hinterland” The Orange Fish
She was twenty-one when he first saw her, seated rather primly next to him on the Piccadilly Line, heading toward South Kensington. It was midafternoon. Like every other young woman in London, she was dressed from head to toe in a shadowless black, and on her lap sat a leather satchel.
“New Music” Dressing for the Carnival
But it was the hedges of England, even more than the trees, that brought him a sense of wonderment. Such shady density, like an artist’s soft pencil, working its way across the English terrain. Why hadn’t his parents told him about this astonishing thing they’d grown up with?
Turning from the scenery, she observes the human activity around her, and, paragraph by paragraph, she describes the reactions of her fellow tourists. Their multiple presence forms particles through which she can see, as through a prism, the glorious and legendary spectacle of Niagara Falls. Once again she finds her own way out.