The stories collected here offer an entrancing look at some of the various miracles of everyday life, the quirks of chance and coincidence, life's setbacks and improvisations. Carol Shields deftly draws us into the lives of a broad range of sharply observed characters, from the brilliant young violinist smothered by an overprotective family, to the elderly widow mowing her lawn while a long, passionate life buzzes around in her memory.
Blending wit and compassion, Shields illuminates moments when ordinary people face extraordinary circumstances, declarations of love and revelations that transform their lives. Sharp, skeptical and sympathetic, this collection presents Shields at her inimitable best in twenty-one miracles of the storyteller's art.
About the author
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: Various Miracles (by (author) Carol Shields)
Several of the miracles that occurred this year have gone unrecorded.
Example: On the morning of January 3, seven women stood in line at a lingerie sale in Palo Alto, California, and by chance each of these women bore the Christian name Emily.
Example: On February 16 four strangers (three men, one woman) sat quietly reading on the back seat of the number 10 bus in Cincinnati, Ohio; each of them was reading a paperback copy of Smiley's People.
On March 30 a lathe operator in a Moroccan mountain village dreamed that a lemon fell from a tree into his open mouth, causing him to choke and die. He opened his eyes, overjoyed at being still alive, and embraced his wife who was snoring steadily by his side. She scarcely stirred, being reluctant to let go of a dream she was dreaming, which was that a lemon tree had taken root in her stomach, sending its pliant new shoots upwards into her limbs. Leaves, blossoms and finally fruit fluttered in her every vein until she began to tremble in her sleep with happiness and intoxication. Her husband got up quietly and lit an oil lamp so that he could watch her face. It seemed to him he'd never really looked at her before and he felt how utterly ignorant he was of the spring that nourished her life. Now she lay sleeping, dreaming, her face radiant. What he saw was a mask of happiness so intense it made him fear for his life.
On May 11, in the city of Exeter in the south of England, five girls (aged fifteen to seventeen) were running across a playing field at ten o'clock in the morning as part of their physical education program. They stopped short when they saw, lying on the broad gravel path, a dead parrot. He was grassy green in color with a yellow nape and head, and was later identified by the girl's science mistress as Amazona ochrocephala. The police were notified of the find and later it was discovered that the parrot had escaped from the open window of a house owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, who claimed, while weeping openly, that they had owned the parrot (Miguel by name) for twenty-two years. The parrot, in fact, was twenty-five years old, one of a pair of birds sold in an open market in Marseilles in the spring of 1958. Miguel's twin brother was sold to an Italian soprano who kept it for ten years, then gave it to her niece Francesca, a violinist who played first with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and later with the Chicago Symphony. On May 11, Francesca was wakened in her River Forest home by the sound of her parrot (Pete, or sometimes Pietro) coughing. She gave him a dish of condensed milk instead of his usual whole-oats-and-peanut mixture, and then phoned to say she would not be able to attend rehearsal that day. The coughing grew worse. She looked up the name of a vet in the Yellow Pages and was about to dial when the parrot fell over, dead in his cage. A moment earlier Francesca had heard him open his beak and pronounce what she believed were the words "Ca ne fait rien."
On August 26 a man named Carl Hallsbury of Billings, Montana was wakened by a loud noise. "My God, we're being burgled," his wife, Marjorie, said. They listened , but when there were no further noises, they drifted back to sleep. In the morning they found that their favorite little watercolor -- a pale rural scene depicting trees and a winding road and the usual arched bridge -- had fallen off the living-room wall. It appeared that it had bounced onto the cast-iron radiator and then ricocheted to a safe place in the middle of the living-room rug. When Carl investigated he found that the hook had worked loose in the wall. He patched the plaster methodically, allowed it to dry, and then installed a new hook. While he worked he remembered how the picture had come into his possession. He had come across it hanging in an emptied-out house in the French city of St. Brieuc, where he and the others of his platoon had been quartered during the last months of the war. The picture appealed to him, its simple lines and the pale tentativeness of the colors. In particular, the stone bridge caught his attention since he had been trained as a civil engineer (Purdue, 1939). When the orders came to vacate the house late in 1944, he popped the little watercolor into his knapsack; it was a snug fit, and the snugness seemed to condone his theft. He was not a natural thief but already he knew that life was mainly a matter of improvisation. Other returning soldiers brought home German helmets, strings of cartridge shells and flags of various sorts, but the little painting was Carl's only souvenir. And his wife, Marjorie, is the only one in the world who knows it to be stolen goods; she and Carl belong to a generation that believes there should be no secrets between married couples. Both of them, Marjorie as much as Carl, have a deep sentimental attachment to the picture, though they no longer believe it to be the work of a skilled artist.
It was, in fact, painted by a twelve-year-old boy named Pierre Renaud who until 1943 had lived in the St. Brieuc house. It was said that as a child he had a gift for painting and drawing; in fact, he had a gift merely for imitation. His little painting of the bridge was copied from a postcard his father had sent him from Burgundy where he’d gone to conduct some business. Pierre had been puzzled and ecstatic at receiving a card from his parent who was a cold, resolute man with little time for his son. The recopying of the postcard in watercolors — later Pierre saw all this clearly — was an act of pathetic homage, almost a way of petitioning his father’s love.
He grew up to become not an artist but a partner in the family leather-goods business. In the late summer he liked to go south in pursuit of sunshine and good wine, and one evening, August 26 it was, he and Jean-Louis, his companion of many years, found themselves on a small stone bridge not far from Tournus. “This is it,” he announced excitedly, spreading his arms like a boy, and not feeling at all sure what he meant when he said the words, “This is it.” Jean-Louis gave him a fond smile; everyone knew Pierre had a large capacity for nostalgia. “But I thought you said you’d never been here before,” he said. “That’s true,” Pierre said, “you are right. But I feel, here” — he pointed to his heart — “that I’ve stood here before.” Jean-Louis teased him by saying, “Perhaps it was in another life.” Pierre shook his head, “No, no, no,” and then, “well, perhaps.” After that the two of them stood on the bridge for some minutes regarding the water and thinking their separate thoughts.
On October 31, Camilla LaPorta, a Cuban-born writer, now a Canadian citizen, was taking the manuscript of her new novel to her Toronto publisher on Front Street. She was nervous; the publisher had been critical of her first draft, telling her it relied too heavily on the artifice of coincidence. Camilla had spent many months on revision, plucking apart the faulty tissue that joined one episode to another, and then, delicately, with the pains of a neurosurgeon, making new connections. The novel now rested on its own complex microcircuity. Wherever fate, chance or happenstance had ruled, there was now logic, causality and science.
As she stood waiting for her bus on the corner of College and Spadina that fall day, a gust of wind tore the manuscript from her hands. In seconds the yellow typed sheets were tossed into a whirling dance across the busy intersection. Traffic became confused. A bus skittered on an angle. Passersby were surprisingly helpful, stopping and chasing the blowing papers. Several sheets were picked up from the gutter where they lay on a heap of soaked yellow leaves. One sheet was found plastered against the windshield of a parked Pontiac half a block away; another adhered to the top of a lamppost; another was run over by a taxi and bore the black herringbone of tire prints. From all directions, ducking the wind, people came running up to Camilla and bringing her the scattered pages. “Oh this is crazy, this is crazy,” she cried into the screaming wind.
When she got to the publisher’s office he took one look at her manuscript and said, “Good God Almighty, don’t tell me, Camilla, that you of all people have become post-modernist and no longer believe in the logic of page numbers.”
Camilla explained about the blast of wind, and then the two of them began to put the pages in their proper order. Astonishingly, only one page was missing, but it was a page Camilla insisted was pivotal, a keystone page, the page that explained everything else. She would have to try to reconstruct it as best she could. “Hmmmmm,” the publisher said — this was late in the afternoon of the same day and they sat in the office sipping tea — “I truly believe, Camilla, that your novel stands up without the missing page. Sometimes it’s better to let things be strange and to represent nothing but themselves.”
The missing page — it happened to be page 46 — had blown around the corner of College Street into the open doorway of a fresh fruit and vegetable stand where a young woman in a red coat was buying a kilo of zucchini. She was very beautiful, though not in a conventional way, and she was also talented, an actress, who for some months had been out of work. To give herself courage and cheer herself up she had decided to make a batch of zucchini-oatmeal muffins, and she was just counting out the change on the counter when the sheet of yellow paper blew through the doorway and landed at her feet.
She was the kind of young woman who reads everything, South American novels, Russian folk tales, Persian poetry, the advertisements on the subway, the personal column in The Globe and Mail, even the instructions and precautions on public fire extinguishers. Print is her way of entering and escaping the world. It was only natural for her to bend over and pick up the yellow sheet and begin to read.
She read: A woman in a red coat is standing in a grocery store buying a kilo of zucchini. She is beautiful, though not in a conventional way, and it happens that she is an actress who —
"Carol Shield's stories have given me happiness, not just pleasure. They're prismatic; they delight at first by the clear and simple elegance with which they are made, then there's something so bountiful and surprising, like beautiful broken light." —Alice Munro
"Carol Shields is a wonderful writer—wry, witty, wise and fiercely intelligent. Many of the stories in this collection are deliciously funny; all are memorable." —Janette Turner Hospital