Literary Introverts: Shy Characters in CanLit

Book Cover Shy

The contributors to Shy: An Anthology, Myrna Kostash writes, leave “the message that shyness may bring its own reward: that there is a creative power and amplitude in the experience of silence, reserve and solitude.” Novelist Ursula Leguin has mused that most writers are probably shy; whether that’s true or not, many writers have certain imbued their characters with a shyness that brings gifts, both to those characters themselves and to those around them. Here, some of Shy’s contributors list their favourite shy characters from Canadian literature.

Book Cover Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

Character: Matthew Cuthbert

Matthew Cuthbert’s shyness, accompanied by a quiet, very kind-hearted nature, is the perfect complement to Anne’s vibrancy and loquaciousness.  Shy people aren’t necessarily good or interested listeners, but Matthew certainly is, and if not for his generous receptivity, Anne may well never have found a place to thrive, and her voice may never have been truly heard.  His shyness is one of his most endearing traits, and I think, like Anne, many readers feel protective of him—I know I do. Though their personalities couldn't be more different, they are, as Anne instinctively knows, kindred spirits.  He was able to see how alone she was, and he knew what that meant.  

—Jennifer Houle

Book Cover A Complicated Kindness

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Character: Nomi Nickel

In fine tonal gradations, life in a small town is portrayed through the eyes of inhibited Nomi Nickel, who is unable to escape both the invisible and metaphoric shackles preventing her from expressing and discussing her deepest longings, and is also unable to express memories of her losses with remaining family members.

—Elaine Woo

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Character: Sydney Henderson

Considered odd by all but his closest friends and family, Sydney Henderson is a humble man of few words and great intelligence. I am sure he would be called shy, yet his reticence goes beyond fear of social situations. He simply refuses to beg the truth even when he is falsely accused, and his unwillingness to defend himself is mistaken for stupidity. Beaten, bullied, ridiculed and charged with crimes he did not commit, this seemingly shy man never compromises his moral beliefs. His silence reveals not only the depths of his character, but the weaknesses of the community he lives in. Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards shows the impact a quiet person can have on the lives of others.

—Debbie Bateman

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Character: Naomi

Joy Kogawa's Obasan is a narrative about an entire group of people persecuted because their cultural values tell them not to fight back and not to respond to authority with argument, and who are dispossessed and abused because of their profound desire to show humility rather than self-righteousness. Kogawa's protagonist, Naomi, eventually responds to the wrongs that have been wrought on her society, Japanese-Canadians, by the most polite and diplomatic of efforts. The result is not only a chronicle of a pain-staking process of self-reclamation of both property and dignity, but a major statement about the nature of shyness. When the young Naomi and her family are removed to Slocan, Alberta from the West Coast of Canada, she coins the phrase, “slow can go.” Shyness, Kogawa implies, is not merely an individual, personal trait, but the expression of those who have yet to find their voices.

—Bruce Meyer

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Character: Cuyler Goodwill

Cuyler Goodwill lives inside his head. He lives in the moment. "...this timid, boy-bodied, besotted young man," loves his wife, Mercy, with all his heart. He quietly ignores the crude taunts of his co-workers, desiring his wife's enormous body, her soft flesh. As they lie in bed he kisses the ends of her hair to show his love and gratitude. At first exhausted by utterances of passionate expression, he gradually finds his orator's voice. It was his brief two year marriage to Mercy that set his tongue free, "...the stone became dislodged....His tongue learned to dance then."

—Madelaine Wong

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy

Characters: Mud and Date Bed

Mud is motivated by love, especially for Date Bed; Date Bed is motivated by faith. On the cusp of adulthood, both tend to keep to themselves, slightly apart from the rest of the family, and are shy around bulls. As the book opens, Mud is on the verge of receiving her adult name, She-Spurns, which she hates. Date Bed says she was pretty sure the name would have something to do with Mud’s aloofness, a curse of shy characters! Both Mud and Date Bed have extrasensory gifts: Mud is a visionary; Date Bed is a mind talker, with exceptional hearing. Both have physical limitations: Mud has a withered leg (the result of her mother falling on her just after her birth), and is not particularly gifted at hearing or scenting.  Date Bed is exceptionally short sighted and often squints to see better. Both have rich inner lives; they are brave, resourceful and loyal. Barbara Gowdy doesn’t privilege shyness, but she has created two great heroines who affirm the importance of a strong inner life.

—Elizabeth Greene

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

Characters: many

Come, Thou Tortoise is a novel populated almost entirely by the shy. Jessica Grant’s Audrey, or “Oddly” is an unconventional introvert raised by unconventional introverts—her father and her Uncle Thoby. Her pet tortoise, the wise and ancient Winnifred, is a hermitic creature by nature, and she moves from human to human and name to name, slow to love and stoic about parting. All of Audrey’s satisfying relationships are with the steadfast and solitary; her former boyfriend is a cliff climber named Cliff, who ultimately chooses rocks over her, and her new love interest is a Jewish Christmas-lights designer, mesmerized in his workshop. These characters are each self sufficient, built to function alone in the world, but when they find each other, they know they’ve found family.

—Naomi Lewis

Scaredy Squirrel

Scaredy Squirrel series, by Mélanie Watt

Character: Scaredy Squirrel

Scaredy Squirrel is the Quebecois squirrel who prefers not to leave his tree or to have his routine interupted. He carries hand sanitizer because he’s afraid of germs, and he is strongly opposed to potential biters (both piranhas and bunnies fall into this category). However, in each of his adventures, Scaredy comes face to face with events that were “not part of plan,” and ends up having just a wee bit of unintentional fun. He enjoys it after all when things get shaken up a little, but he’s always happy to return home and settle down with a nut (with a napkin tucked carefully around his neck).

—Naomi Lewis

October 17, 2013
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