It wasn’t so long ago that I was rereading The Box Garden (for #1977Club). But last year I was thinking only of Charleen and had forgotten whatever I’d ever known about her sister Judith, whom I’ve recently gotten reacquainted with, rereading Shields’ debut, Small Ceremonies (1976) earlier this year.

There were a couple of decades between my reading Small Ceremonies and rereading. Back then, I made note of 23 passages. Rereading this year, I marked 24, and only seven of these were duplicates. I don’t have my notes from my first reading of The Box Garden in the ‘90s, but when I reread it last year, I noted 15 passages; rereading this spring, I recognized many of my favourites and didn’t flag them again, but still added another 11 notes.

Aspects of a book that spoke to you in another decade of your life strike you differently later on. Rereading the stories of the Gill sisters now, years after first readings and in close proximity, I found myself thinking more about their background, the home they shared (which the sisters revisit in The Box Garden to attend their mother’s wedding).

And I was struck by the fact that, in both cases, I had no memory of key aspects of the two novels’ plots. I’d forgotten that, in Small Ceremonies, Judith does something that she feels very guilty about and troubles to conceal; later, someone else does the same thing to her and she is irate and judgmental.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Judith’s betrayal revolves around a matter of authenticity. It’s not a surprise, then, to find that theme surfacing in The Box Garden too.

Each generation has, it seems, effectively sealed itself off from its lowly forebears. My mother had not wanted to remember the muddy thirty acres where she grew up, the roofless barn, the doorless outhouse, the greasy kitchen table where the family took meals, the chickens which wandered in and out the back door, the thick-ankled mother who could neither read nor write and who had little capacity for affection or cleanliness. Hadn’t my mother, in spite of all this, finished grade nine and hadn’t she gone to Toronto to work in a hat factory?

Charleen shortens her description of her boxed garden of grass when she’s talking to her sister, Judith, about it, in their mother’s house, while everyone else is asleep. About how she really felt about those “first little seeds”.

She dampens her enthusiasm, only affords a brief glimpse of her passion for this project. She feels apart from her female ancestors, apart from her sister, apart from the woman she was when she was married. For most of The Box Garden, she feels apart from herself.

(Just as her sister, Judith, in Small Ceremonies, feels separate from the woman who lives in the house that doesn’t feel like hers, separate from the writing part of her who used to prefer fiction to non-fiction, separate from her husband who suddenly has unrecognizable artsy ambitions, separate from her children who are becoming more independent.)

The final segment of this novel is one extended scene with little opportunity for the kind of contemplative and reflective tone that comprises the bulk of the novel. Charleen’s observation could be about that scene or about her box garden that grew from grass seed:

“It occurs to me that there are some happenings for which the proper response is not comprehension at all, but amazement and acceptance.”

It’s all very ordinary. And amazing.