18 April 2018

In 1977, I Hope I Go to Heaven

The Box Garden
Carol Shields
Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977
213 pages

In 1977, I finished Edgar Rice Burrough's Pellucidar series and was a regular reader of The Savage Sword of Conan. A novel about a middle-aged woman's trip to Toronto would not have appealed to my adolescent self.

In adulthood, I met Carol Shields exactly three times. The first was at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, an unusual event in which she shared the bill with realist painter Mary Pratt. This was followed a few years later by the Toronto launch for Larry's Party. The last was at a Random House reception held in a forgotten pub. Toronto or Vancouver? All I remember was that Mordecai Richler was also there. Maybe Michael Ondaatje.

Mrs Shields was always very kind, and remembered my brother-in-law, a university friend of her daughter Sara, sleeping on the floor of her home office. She happily signed every book presented. Thirteen of the twenty Carol Shields books in my collection bear her signature, and yet until last week I'd never read one. I blame her publishers, who so often positioned her as a writer of women's novels.

McGraw-Hill Ryerson positioned The Box Garden as a woman's novel, but I vaulted over the gender barrier with ease, aided by this first paragraph:
What was it that Brother Adam wrote me last week? That here are no certainties in life. That we change hourly or even from one minute to the next, our entire cycle of being altered, our selves shaken with the violence of change.
The narrator is protagonist Charleen Forrest, a divorcée living in Vancouver with her teenage son Seth. Ex-husband Watson's child support cheques, sent from an Ontario commune, are punctual. Charleen keeps it all afloat through editorial work for the quarterly National Botanical Journal.

Her new man is orthodontist Eugene Redding. He holds certain attraction to Charlene as another damaged survivor of another failed marriage. "We are losers," says our heroine. "The hapless rejects, the jilted partners of people stronger than ourselves." Charleen looks for confirmation of her worth in every story Eugene shares about his ex:
"She was always something of a bitch," Eugene said about his wife, Jeri, shortly after I met him, "but at least in the early days she confined her bitchiness to outsiders. Like waiters in restaurants. The first time I took her out to dinner – I'd only known her a week or so then and I wanted to take her somewhere, you know, impressive. To show her that country boys don't necessarily dribble soup out of the corners of their mouths. We went to the Top of the Captain and she sent the rolls back because they were cold."
     "No!" I gasped delightedly. "Really?"
     "Really. She said that she thought more people should take that kind of responsibility when the service wasn't up to standard. Sort of a battlecry with her."
     "And you married her after that! Oh, Eugene, how could you?"
     "There's one born every minute, you know."
     "What else did she do?" I asked greedily.
Dialogue that is all too real, all too mundane; what makes it live is "delightedly" and "greedily."

Though Eugene is unaware, the most important man in Charleen's life is Brother Adam – he of the novel's very first sentence – who once submitted a paper to the Journal. The subject was grass. A generous correspondent, he is ever ready with words of advice sent from "The Priory" in far-off Toronto. The Box Garden begins as Charleen makes final preparations to visit that very city. Her widowed mother is getting married. Eugene accompanies her on the trip, which happens to coincide with a orthodontist convention. Son Seth is left in the care of old friends Doug and Greta Savage. This appears a good thing – what with Eugene, Charlene, sister Judith, and Judith's husband, the old family home is a bit tight. Concerns over sleeping arrangements and the supply of sliced bread look to dominate the two days leading to the wedding. And then Charlene's life is thrown.

I read The Box Garden as an admirer of Simon and Karen's book clubs, in which readers are encouraged to read and discuss works published in a specific year. Thus far, they've covered 1924, 1938, 1947, 1951, and 1968. I've long wanted to join in, but the weeklong events always seemed to sneak up on me.

Not this time.

Because The Box Garden was read for its 1977 pub date, I couldn't help but focus on its time. Vancouver, a city I'd visited for the first time the year before (I'd end up living there through much of the nineties and aughts), was much smaller then. Seth is fifteen, the age I turned that summer. Reading the novel, I was alert to fashion, decor, and money, all of which are referenced more than in most novels. This scene in which Charleen has her hair done at Mr Mario's Beauty Box is a favourite:
Light spills through the shirred Austrian curtains and twinkles off the plastic chandeliers. Little bulbs blaze around the mirrors reminding me of movie stars' dressing rooms. Pink hairdryers buzz and air conditioners churn. The wet, white sunlight of the street is miles away. I wait for Mr. Mario in a slippery vinyl chair, suddenly struck with  the fear that this rosy elegance might hint at unkempt of prices. Much more than fifteen dollars, maybe even eighteen. Or as much as twenty. Twenty dollars for a hair cut, am I crazy? I turn to the kidney desk in panic, but the receptionist eyes me coldly, leanly. "Now," she says.
This focus made me wish it was possible to revisit the Canada of my youth, if only to compare to today. Women wore dresses more often back then, bus drivers gave change, long distance phone calls were a big deal, and Pierre Trudeau, not Justin, was prime minister. I wonder, was it really possible to support oneself working mornings at an academic journal?

The Box Garden is recommended. I'll be reading more Carol Shields, beginning with Small Ceremonies, her debut novel, which concerns Judith, Charleen's sister. Readers seem to like that novel more. Does it have something to do with the writing? The plot? Or is it simply that Judith is more interesting? I must find out, but I won't be writing about it here; Carol Shields  has no place in a blog devoted to Canada's neglected, forgotten and suppressed. I'm discussing The Box Garden today because I'm not sure I would've gained entry to the 1977 Club with my scathing review of the September 1977 Savage Sword of Conan.

Object: A bland hardcover from a publisher that was just about to give up on fiction. The cover illustration is by Alan Daniel. I purchased my copy – a true first edition, then unsigned – in 1992 from a Montreal bookseller. Price: $25.

Access: The McGraw-Hill Ryerson edition (one printing) was followed by a 1979 Totem mass market (one printing), after which it disappeared from bookstores. The novel was revived in 1994 by Vintage Canada after The Stone Diaries took the 1993 Governor General's Award for English-language fiction. Interestingly, Fourth Estate published the first British edition the same year. The first American edition, a Penguin paperback, followed The Stone Diaries being awarded the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Box Garden remains in print in all three countries. The most recent Fourth Estate edition has it coupled with Small Ceremonies under the title Duet. At £12.99, it seems a bargain. That said,  used copies of The Box Garden, not at all hard to find, can be bought online for as little as one American penny. At US$375, the most expensive copy is a Very Good Canadian first offered by a Santa Monica bookseller. Ignore it. The second most expensive – US$150 – is not only signed but is in better condition. Ignore it. Another American bookseller offers a Near Fine signed first at US$53.95.

I know of only one translation: the Bulgarian Nebesni tsvetia (Varna: Kompas, 1999). How strange.

The Box Garden is easily found in our larger public libraries. Not strange at all.


  1. Carol Shields was one of my favorite writers. I've read most of her books and even had my book group do one. She died too early.

    1. Sixty-eight, seems so young. I'm happy to have met her.

  2. Thank you for your lovely, and very personal, contribution to the #1977club! I confess I've never read Shields, but I really should. So glad you could join us this time! :)


    1. Thank you for the welcome. Would that I could recommend where to begin with Shields, but... you know, I've only read one. I'm glad that the 1977 Club gave me a poke.

  3. I can't say that I've ever read any Carol Shields, but I was also a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Savage Sword along with Conan the Barbarian and any Robert E. Howard books I could get my hands on.

    1. I was such a dedicated reader of Savage Sword of Conan that I would walk 4.9kms (Google Maps) to the United Cigar Store in Fairview Shopping Centre for each new issue. There were times I'd jumped the gun and came back empty-handed.

  4. I read Larry's Party just last year, and had a good time.

    1. I've only heard good things about Larry's Party. I bought the novel when it came out and - shamefully - have been moving it, unread, from house to house these past twenty-one years.

  5. Very glad you could join in this time! I've never read any Shields - clearly Karen and I are equally behind there - and hadn't heard of this one. But now I've been to Toronto, I think I'd get a lot out of it.

    1. Thanks for the welcome, Simon. My goal is to make it a habit.

  6. "Women wore dresses more often back then, bus drivers gave change, long distance phone calls were a big deal, and Pierre Trudeau, not Justin, was prime minister."

    How well I remember! I have to pick this up.

    1. There's a scene in which sisters Charleen and Judith, sharing a bedroom, have a conversation in their slips. I'm not sure my wife has even owned a slip.

      I once edited a collection of letters by the poet John Glassco. In one, written sometime in 1966, he writes that it's probably best to splurge on a long distance phone call in order to further discuss a project. He did just that - and so, we have no idea about the exchange. I fear cheap long distance and "plans" will put an end to volumes of selected letters.