A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard
edited by Blanche and Allison Howard
Published by Viking Canada
309 pages, 2007
Women of Letters
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
I have a feeling that this hefty hardcover will be remembered as one of 2007’s must read books. Firstly, because the reading public still can’t get enough of Carol Shields, secondly because there is no more Carol Shields and it’s unlikely that any earlier writing is likely to show up in a desk drawer, an old disc, or on computer files and, thirdly, because two worldly women intelligently discussing books, politics, and writing while also performing adeptly in their roles as mothers, grandmothers, wives and hostesses, appeals to the majority of women. (And hopefully, some discerning men; the kind we’d like to marry.)
Edited by Shield’s friend, Blanche Howard, and Blanche’s daughter, Allison, A Memoir of Friendship spans the time from when the two writers met in 1971, until just prior to Shields’ death from breast cancer in 2003.
The two women met at a university women’s club meeting hosted by Shields when both were beginning their writing. Shields was 35 and Blanche, 47. It was to the older woman that Shields would turn when she needed advice on childrearing, wanted an expert eye to critique her writing, or someone with whom to share books, reflections, experiences and memories. They had much in common: enquiring and critical minds, children, long and successful marriages, a love of travel and a foothold in the Canadian literary scene. They knew many of the same people, had the same literary affiliations, had published books and devoured literature.
The evolution of the correspondence the Howards share with us is an interesting one. It takes us from rambling letters and occasional phone calls in the days when long distance calls were a rare luxury, to the formality of word processing, still sent by snail mail, but slightly differing in tone from the handwritten missive, and eventually to e-mail, with its more casual, emotive intimacy, and to regular phone calls as the rates became cheaper and the friends became wealthier.
While one wishes that the letters were not quite as severely edited, especially at the end as Shields approached her death, it is obvious that the privacy and wishes of both families had to be respected. As well, the flow and the length of the book, which is already sizable, needed to be considered.
It takes time to warm to this correspondence, but as A Memoir of Friendship progresses, you find yourself not wanting to put it down. Isn’t that like friendship, after all? We begin slowly, tentatively, recognizing someone who might be a kindred soul. A friendship takes time to develop and then speeds up once the connection is tested and proven to be valid and durable.
So, at the beginning of A Memoir of Friendship two new friends are connecting, and the content and tone of their letters mirrors this. Once the friendship warms and becomes more intense, and especially once the two friends decide to collaborate on a book, the women open to each other, and we’re hooked.
A good book works on many levels, but it’s hard to imagine another book with as many levels as this one. We learn so much more about Shields and are in awe of what a really fine person she was. We learn as much about Blanche Howard. Ultimately it feels as if these women have become our friends, too. The very nature of friendship is somehow made more clear, and in that clarity, we may come to recognize and to cherish our own special links with friends.
The letters are also a chronicle of the Canadian literary scene while at the same time sharing with us the very nature of the creative process. We also begin to understand the long, difficult and often discouraging business of being a writer. The work Shields and Howard co-authored in 1991, A Celibate Season, went through years of rejections, crushing disappointments, false hopes and reworking before it was ever published.
Sadly, Blanche’s politician husband, Bruce, died during the final few months of Sheilds’ life. The ailing author, now staggering under the weight of honors like her recognition as an Officer of the Order of Canada, and the nomination of her last novel Unless, for the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s award, managed nevertheless to come to Bruce’s memorial service. There she sat with her friend, and as Howard writes:
Just as this memoir will find its way into our collective memories. The Howards have given Carol Shields one more way in which she will live on. | November 2007
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.