The idea for Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told came up between Carol Shields and longtime friend Marjorie Anderson over lunch. It appeared that after decades of feminism, the “women's network” still wasn't able to prevent women being caught off-guard by life. There remained subjects women just didn't talk about, or felt they couldn't talk about. Holes existed in the fabric of women's discourse, and they needed examining.
They asked thirty-four women to write about moments in life that had taken them by surprise or experiences that received too little discussion, and then they compiled these pieces into a book. It became an instant number one bestseller, a book clubs' favourite and a runaway success. Dropped Threads, says Anderson, "tapped into a powerful need to share personal stories about life's defining moments of surprise and silence." Readers recognized themselves in these honest and intimate stories; there was something universal in these deeply personal accounts. Other stories and suggestions poured in. Dropped Threads would clearly be an ongoing project.
Like the first volume, Dropped Threads 2 features stories by well-known novelists and journalists such as Jane Urquhart, Susan Swan and Shelagh Rogers, but also many excellent new writers including teachers, mothers, a civil servant, a therapist. This triumphant follow-up received a starred first review in Quill and Quire magazine, which called it “compassionate and unflinching.” The book deals with such difficult topics as loss, depression, disease, widowhood, violence, and coming to terms with death. Several stories address some of the darker sides of motherhood:
- A mother describes how, while sleep-deprived and in a miserable marriage, she is shocked to find infanticide crossing her mind.
- Another woman recounts a memory of her alcoholic mother demanding the children prove their loyalty in a terrifying way.
- A woman desperate for children refers to the bleak truth as: "Another Christmas of feeling barren." Narrating the fertility treatment she undergoes, the hopes dashed, she is amusing in retrospect and yet brutally honest.
While they deal with loss and trauma, the pieces show the path to some kind of acceptance, showing the authors’ determination to learn from pain and pass on the wisdom gained. The volume also covers the rewards of learning to be a parent, choosing to remain single, or fitting in as a lesbian parent. It explores how women feel when something is missing in a friendship, how they experience discrimination, relationship challenges, and other emotions less easily defined but just as close to the bone:
- Alison Wearing in “My Life as a Shadow” subtly describes allowing her personality to be subsumed by her boyfriend's.
- Pamela Mala Sinha tells how, after suffering a brutal attack, she felt self-hatred and a longing for retribution.
- Dana McNairn talks of her uncomfortable marriage to a man from a different social background: "I wanted to fit in with this strange, wondrous family who never raised their voices, never swore and never threw things at one another."
Humour, a confiding tone, and beautiful writing elevate and enliven even the darkest stories. Details bring scenes vividly to life, so we feel we are in the room with Barbara Defago when the doctor tells her she has breast cancer, coolly dividing her life into a 'before and after.' Lucid, reflective and poignant, Dropped Threads 2 is for anyone interested in women's true stories.
About the authors
Carol Shields was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935 and moved to Canada, at the age of 22, after studying at the University of Exeter in England and the University of Ottawa. She was the author of over 20 books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a work of criticism on Susanna Moodie, and a biography of Jane Austen. Her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, the American Book Critics' Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. It was also a runner up for the Booker Prize, bringing her an international following. Larry's Party (also available from BTC Audiobooks) won England's Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. Carol Shields died in July 2003 in Victoria after a long struggle with cancer.
Excerpt: Dropped Threads 2: More of What We Aren't Told (by (author) Carol Shields & Marjorie Anderson)
In My Mother’s Arms by Mary Jane Copps
The “ordinary” family is capable of inflicting much pain upon its children. Pain which, by necessity, moves inward, creating adults who must either unravel their secrets or perpetuate a legacy of betrayal.
-- Jan Austin, psychotherapist
I am startled awake by the quick, cold hands that hoist me to her shoulder. She impatiently pats away my instinctive cry of distress.
At three, sleep was a place I went to, like going to the playground with my sister, or running in the backyard with Prince, our cocker spaniel. Sleep was even a favoured outing, always surprising me with who, or what, would show up to play.
I loved surprises. I believed in them, saw them as a necessary part of life. My days were filled with looking for them. Head down, I would walk along sidewalks, intent on finding a shiny coin or sparkling jewel. Whenever possible, I would turn over rocks and dig in the earth beneath, sure a treasure was awaiting me. And always, I pulled at the pockets of adults, convinced that the clinking I heard was something they were carrying as a gift, just for me.
So on this night, as the sliver of light slashes across my tumbled crib, and her fragile hands wake me to darkness, I can ignore my siblings’ sudden silence and fill my sleepy head with thoughts of Santa Claus.
In my house, midnight Mass distorted the reality of Christmas morning. My parents and brothers and sister would return home hungry, ready to get on with the opening of gifts, and I would be wakened to join them. I suspect that my mother, faced with the day’s prospects of too many in-laws and the endless details of the holiday meal, simply wanted to get something out of the way and pushed to establish this Christmas-in-the-dark tradition.
But it isn’t snowing. Perhaps the Easter bunny, then, or maybe my birthday. I snuggle deeper into her neck, closing my eyes tightly, for it is bad luck to ruin a surprise.
I’ve inherited my reverence for gift giving from my mother, a devout orchestrator of holidays and celebrations. These hallowed events were staged in one of two places, depending on the occasion. The living room couch, a much-protected piece of furniture, elaborately displayed the wares of Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s and birthdays. Always, I would build up the moment of surprise by walking down the stairs facing the wall, averting my eyes until the last possible second from the splendours that awaited me.
Sweaty from slumber, I cling to her coolness as she carries me down the stairs. Once in the living room, I push myself away from her shelter and look toward the couch in eager anticipation. It is empty. Unsettled, but not deterred, I close my eyes and once again set my drowsy hopes on Santa Claus.
Christmas was truly fantastic. The den, a large addition at the back of the house, became a holiday shrine. In one corner stood the magnificent tree (Scotch pine was her favourite) with lights, fragile decorations, aged tinsel, a golden angel and, of course, a circle of brightly wrapped gifts. Stockings hung from the top of a built-in bookcase, bulging with candy and the unwanted but necessary tangerine. And beneath them, the unwrapped deliveries from the North Pole. All this was held from view by heavy, brown brocade drapes that shut the den off from the dining room. Opening these drapes required her permission.
I feel the presence of my siblings as we reach the dining room and pop my eyes open in delight. All significantly older than I am, my two brothers and my sister are my playmates, my caregivers, and I love them fiercely. They stand huddled together near the kitchen door, looking not at me but at my mother. They do not make a sound. Behind them I see the open drapes and know for certain this is not about Christmas.
I must have seen their terror. I must have sensed her anger. But I had already chosen my role in this house, to remain hopeful long after it was prudent. My desire for a gift would not be quelled. Perhaps it was what saved us.
Once we are in sight of the other children, her voice rings high and loud above my head. This is her never-ending-flurry-of-words, all racing out of her mouth, bumping into one another, falling together and never making any sense -- at least not to me. But the others seem to understand. They turn in unison and enter the kitchen. From behind, she shoves each of them toward the stove.
If I had not been struggling against the mist of sleep, I might have seen her eyes, wide with panic and veiled with the glaze of prescription drugs. If I had been a little older, I might have smelled a day’s alcohol on her skin and heard the madness of her demand.
She is asking her children for proof of their loyalty, their unshakeable love. She gathers us around the stove, my brothers on her left, my sister on the right and me still in her arms. She turns the large front element on high, the electricity crackling to life and slowly changing the colour of the black coil.
“If you love me,” she says, “you will move your hand toward this element until I say stop.”
Her voice booms and bounces in the quiet kitchen. My siblings squirm. I remain mesmerized by the brilliant spiral below me.
“You first,” she says, nudging my sister with her elbow.
The shaking hand of my eleven-year-old sister begins a descent from its highest height toward the glowing orange element.
I am annoyed. I know about going first -- about opening the first present, being served the first plate, getting the first piece of cake. As the youngest, and very much the baby, going first is my place, my territory in a crowded household. Besides, I have been looking for a surprise and this sun-like object must be it.
With the agility and speed of a three-year-old, I wiggle and lunge, diving toward the burning element.
My sister’s hands catch mine. She pushes me back, toward our mother. My oldest brother moves quickly, stepping between us and the stove, clicking off this evening’s source of pain.
I giggle and laugh. I think we have invented a new game to play together, a type of dance, perhaps. My sister takes me from my mother’s trembling embrace. The speed words have stopped. Tears slide down her face, and she mumbles apologies without pause. My brothers cautiously walk her up the stairs, their footsteps creaking toward her bedroom. I sit with my sister in the kitchen. Held within her tight embrace, I listen to the wild rhythms of her heart.
Praise for Dropped Threads:
“There are exciting and truly intimate entries in this book…these women take ideas even secret ones, and infuse them with poetry, scoured and buffed sentences and …stopwatch comic timing…The true depth of the collection is found in these women’s clear memories and their willingness to share.” -- Quill & Quire
“It’s a collection of revealing essays and short stories by 35 Canadian women at mid-life and beyond, reflecting on the life events that caught them off guard and, somehow, haven’t been talked about…As it turns out, there are many dropped threads in our lives. Weave them together and you’ve got a tapestry.”-- Bonnie Schiedel, Chatelaine, April 2001
“Dropped Threads … is a collection of 34 pieces by Canadian women in which they describe…everything they never said or were not able to say before, but which had tremendous power in their lives…[Senator Sharon Carstairs’s] essay about women in politics [is] clear-eyed and devastating …Miriam Toews examines her father’s lifelong battle with depression, which culminated in his suicide … with gentleness and insight … These are all the conversations we would wish to have with friends and these essays stimulate the sense of exuberance and relief that one always feels after a long, self-revelatory talk.” -- Virginia Beaton, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 25 Feb 2001
“Dropped Threads is a much-awaited anthology of essays and stories by Canadian women, including celebrated writers as well as women who are neither writers nor famous … The angst of the women in Dropped Threads covers a wide spectrum.” -- Paul Gessell, Ottawa Citizen, 20 Jan 2001
“If the value of books were measured by the insights stored within their pages, Dropped Threads would be priceless…[This] is a wonderfully well-written and excellently edited book that offers such intimate insights that it sometimes seems like a stream of consciousness. The compositions frequently make the reader feel like an eavesdropper -- and an extremely entertained one at that…The stories in Dropped Threads cathartically tie up loose ends for their writers, while providing readers with an exquisitely crafted patchwork quilt of life experiences.” -- Winnipeg Free Press
Other titles by Carol Shields
The Collected Poetry of Carol Shields
Startle and Illuminate
Carol Shields on Writing