Carol Shields Biography

Born Carol Ann Warner, June 2, 1935, in Oak Park, IL; died of breast cancer, July 16, 2003, in Victoria, BC, Canada. Author. Canadian–American novelist Carol Shields wrote several acclaimed works over the course of a career that cancer prematurely ended in 2003. As a writer, she eschewed literary fireworks and narrative dazzle for stories instead about women who struggled to make sense of their place in the world. One of those, The Stone Diaries, won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for literature. "In her hands the commonplace turned into extraordinary," New York Times writer Christopher Lehmann–Haupt asserted.

Shields lived a life not unlike many of her heroines during her first four decades: she was born into a comfortable middle–class household in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, in 1935. Her father managed a candy factory, and her mother taught school. A talented writer during her teens, she went to Hanover College in Indiana, but during a semester abroad at England's Exeter University she met a Canadian student, Don Shields, whom she married in 1957. The pair settled in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and began a family.

Shields became the mother of five children, but began yearning for a life outside the home after she read Betty Friedan's groundbreaking 1963 feminist tract, The Feminine Mystique. In 1968, at the age of 33, Shields decided to return to school for her master's degree. She also began writing poetry and short stories. One of her first jobs was editing a small literary journal from her home. "It was a jobette, really," the Scotsman 's David Robinson quoted her as saying. "I worked in a spare room upstairs. I became the Mother Who Typed."

After earning her master's degree from the University of Ottawa in 1975, Shields turned some of her unused thesis material about Canadian poet Susanna Moodie into the plotline of her first novel, Small Ceremonies, which was published in Canada in 1976. It was followed by The Box Garden and Happenstance, each of which also failed to earn more than a passing mention by the literary establishment. "There were reviews that called them 'domestic' novels and 'women's' novels," the Scotsman 's Robinson quoted Shields as saying, "and spoke of them quite lightly.… I love domesticity. I love the idea of home, and I think that is, in the end, what serious novels are about: the search for home."

Shields' novels gained a following in Canada, then the United States, particularly with a 1987 novel, Mary Swann, about a murdered poetess. An esteemed British publisher discovered her work and began issuing her back list, and as a result, Shields' novels caught on with United Kingdom readers as well. Her 1994 novel, The Stone Diaries, cemented her reputation, taking awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Its plot followed one woman's eight–decade–long story of a life largely unfulfilled. Daisy Goodwill Flett's recollections of moving from daughter to wife to mother struck a chord with readers, and the work became a bestseller. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, one of Britain's top literary honors, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States and Canada's Governor General Literary Award. Shields's dual citizenship also made her eligible for Pulitzer, which she won in 1995 for The Stone Diaries. The financial windfall from the book's success bought Shields a vacation home in France, which she dubbed "Chateau Pulitzer."

Not long after her 1997 novel, Larry's Party —her first to center on a male protagonist—won Britain's prestigious Orange Prize for the best book by a woman writer in the English language of the past year, Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two years later, in 2000, she retired from the University of Manitoba, where she had taught for the past 20 years, and settled in picturesque British Columbia with her husband, who had also retired as an engineering professor. She continued to work, despite undergoing surgery, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy, completing another acclaimed novel, Unless. Published in 2002, it detailed the difficulties of a woman whose daughter has dropped out of college to live as a homeless person. She stands on a Toronto street corner, a silent beggar, wearing a sign that proclaims "Goodness." The work was shortlisted for both the Orange and Booker prizes. Shields claimed her illness had halted her schedule, at least temporarily. "I've stopped writing several times, through some of the worst phases," Los Angeles Times journalist Dennis McLellan quoted her as saying. "But I always start again. It's a kind of consolation. And there's something about wanting to go home to write that final book."

Shields was 68 when she died at her home in Victoria, British Columbia. She is survived by her husband, one son, four daughters, and eleven grandchildren, and left a novel in progress about an elderly writer in Chicago. Unlike the heroine of The Stone Diaries, Shields did not feel she led an unfulfilled life. "I don't feel I've missed out at all," her Independent obituary by Clare Colvin quoted her as saying. "I've got my friends, my family, my writing.… I think I've done pretty well."


Chicago Tribune, July 18, 2003, sec. 3, p. 12; , (July 17, 2003); Independent (London, England), July 18, 2003, p. 17; Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2003, p. B12; New York Times, July 18, 2003, p. C11; Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), July 18, 2003, p. 18; Time, May 27, 2002, p. 61; Washington Post, July 18, 2003, p. B7.

Carol Brennan

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