The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields


I was moved to read this after seeing KevinfromCanada‘s post after his third reading of this prize winning book of fiction (it won the Pulitzer and the Canadian Governor-General’s Award and was short-listed for the Booker in 1993).  It is the story of a 20th century woman, born in 1905 who died in the 1990s. Though Daisy’s life was that of an ordinary woman, it had its extraordinary moments, starting with her birth. Her mother, a momentously overweight beloved wife named Mercy Goodwill, gave birth on her kitchen floor, having been unaware she was pregnant, and died in the effort. She was discovered by a passing peddler, who summoned a neighbor and the doctor. It was the peddler who noticed the baby was alive. Daisy was cared for by the neighbor Clarentine who, not long after taking Daisy in, left her husband to live with her grown son in Winnipeg.

Daisy’s story is told sometimes by her own narrative, sometimes by the omniscent observer, and once through letters to Daisy, in chapters that each cover about a decade of her life. While the changing times of the century are reflected in telling the story, it remains Daisy’s story, not that of the century. The selection of pictures purporting to be Daisy’s parents, children, and grandchildren add to your belief these are real people. When I read about Daisy’s daughter Alice, I turned more than once to her photos as a child and as a young adult.

Perhaps I want to retract the statement that Daisy is an ordinary woman; beyond the circumstances of her birth, there’s more.  The woman who cared for her, Clarentine, died in an accident when she was 11. Her father, a quarryman who had perfected his stone carving skill creating a monument for her mother, had moved to Bloomington, Indiana. After Clarentine’s death, she went to Bloomington and grew up in comfortable circumstances there. She had two close friends, “Fraidy” and  “Beans” (who appear in the section of photos) and they remained friends for their whole lives. The naive and innocent Daisy married disasterously, though it was a mercifully short unconsumated marriage: her husband drunkenly fell out a window on their honeymoon. Some years later, on the brink of a permanently lonely life in Bloomington, she traveled to Canada and arranged to visit Barker Flett, the son of Clarentine. He had secretly been in love with the child Daisy and was beside himself to see her again in Canada. They married, had three children, and lived happily,or perhaps I should say contentedly until his death.

After he died, Daisy comes to life for the first time, it seems to me. She takes over his weekly column on gardening and is highly successful and much loved by readers. After 10 years, just as she is about to turn 60 she is pushed out of this work by a full-time writer who claims his right to the column and she is rightfully angry and falls into a depression. Everyone is concerned about her and has their own theory of why she’s depressed, but she knows she will become bored after she has explored the depths and will recover.

She remains vital through her 70s and has the occasional adventure, like the trip to the Orkneys with 22 year Victoria. She had grown up in her house, as Daisy had taken in her pregnant single mother Beverly, a cousin of her then-dead husband Barker. Victoria and another academic have a grant to look for evidence of biological forms in the remains in the form of fossils. Daisy finds the
125 year old Magnus Flett, father of her husband Barker.

The question is what we can know about Daisy, how much remains hidden, unknowable about Daisy, or by extension, anyone else. Her children knew nothing of her first marriage, were surprised upon finding
her college essays that she had been knowledgable about its esoteric topic. Her life, her “self” changes over the decades. That concept puts me in mind of the wonderful book The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler which made a similar point.

One last piece of this book I want to remember:  Daisy’s father moved to Bloomington for the limestone business and lived the remainder of his life there. After retirement, he moves to a house on Lake Lemon and ultimately dies there.

This book is widely available and I checked it out of the public library which has multiple copies.

Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries, Viking, 1993, 361 pages.

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