A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields & Blanche Howard Edited by Blanche Howard and Allison Howard Forward by Anne Giardini

Memoir of a Friendship


Carol and Blanche May 2001











From the Canadian newspapers at the time of publication:

“…A Memoir of Friendship can be viewed as a social history of women’s writing in Canada…A significant achievement and a landmark book.”  -Joan Clark, The Globe and Mail

“A Memoir of Friendship is a dialogue of grace and generosity…It is also surprisingly gripping, propelled by suspense over acceptance for publication, family vissisitudes and – most moving and harrowing – health, especially that of Shields herself.”  – Quill & Quire

“Filled with insights into the lives of women as wives, mothers and Canadian writers…A rich and intimate portrait of two women who loved and respected one another.” – The Calgary Sun

Random Quotations

Am I sounding curmudgeonly rather than grandmotherly? Find a tendency to this as the years fly by.   -Blanch, June 26, 1991

We seem to stand in relation to one another as mutual mentors, since I am always in awe of your talent and studying your work and methods for enlightenment. Odd to have a relationship where mentorship works both ways, isn’t it?”   -Blanche, Nov. 17, 1993

“I read a review of this book in The Globe a couple of weeks ago [Carolyn Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty] and went straight out and bought it. About getting older. About long marriages. I don’t agree with her about everything…   ”   -Carol, July 15, 1997

“I finished Carolyn Heilbrun last night and can’t thank you enough…I do think though that there is a change in the pattern of consciousness in one’s sixties, a sort of stepping-back and summing-up that isn’t done at all deliberately. What she said about unwanted detailed memories of scenes from earlier times was right on…”     – Blanche, August 6, 1997

“I’d be interested to know what you think of Fugitive Pieces. An odd book, not satisfying to me. In fact it made me a little cross…”        -Carol, December 1, 1997

“Aren’t people curious in their expectations, at least those of a certain age. I had an e-mail exchange from a local theology student who wondered why we had to resolve the novel with adultery at all. I tried to explain that I thought it was a reality in the world (but then, how would I know!)   -Carol, October 15, 1998

“Thank you belatedly, for this wonderful book, Stett. I devoured it. I love her, Diana Athill, her fairness and wit. Don’t you just sense what a wonderful conversation we could have with her? She is open and tactful and cordial and polite. And smart.       -Carol, January 26, 2002

These are just a random selection. My copy of the book is full of flags. Aside from the concerns of family, publishing, professional events and aging, the book could easily serve as a guide for choosing interesting reading: I was reminded of a number of titles, some of which I have read and others which I never got to which I have marked with a flag so that I can go back and check. This could be called a quiet book or a comfort read but it is more than both those things. It is a little like conversations in a cozy room warmed by a fire or a kitchen filled with the aroma of baking. It is one of those books that might have the potential to become a friend itself.

The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor by Sally Armstrong

A remarkable and compelling tribute to a great-great-great grandmother by her granddaughter who has combined her skills as a documentary filmmaker, teacher, activist and contributing editor/journalist to imagine her great-great-great grandmother’s life journey and to share it. The preface, written in 2004, opens with this sentence:

“Like an unfinished symphony, her story played on my mind for most of my life. It would rock to the tune of the passage of time, an adagio of high notes, low notes and illusive movements. Then when I least expected it, I happened upon the missing notes in the life of Charlotte Howe Taylor.”

While cycling along the Baie do Chaleur in northern New Brunswick she sees “the morning rays bouncing off a newly installed bronze plaque” and she leaves her bike and wades “through knee-high shimmering sea-grass to find out what warrants a marker at the end of Youghall Beach.”

“The inscription sends shivers up my spine.  Line by line it spills out details I’ve been searching for. Recently erected government plaques do not usually resolve historical mysteries. But seeing this one I realize that while I was toiling away in the archives and searching for birth and death dates in family Bibles trying to piece the Charlotte Taylor story together, an archeologist had discovered a connection I’d overlooked.

And so Armstrong learns that 200 years before the point of land she is on was the site of an important trading post operated by George Walker and one of the men he had worked with was Captain John Blake, who was her great-great-great grandmother’s husband. And the date that all happened was 1775.Charlotte's World 2

At the beginning of her novel the above map is provided and it is invaluable to those readers, like myself, who particularly like to have an understanding of where their protagonist is. The labels are much clearer in the book but the circular area on the left page is the area enlarged on the right page and every place that Charlotte goes, after her arrival from Jamaica in Commodore Walker’s ship,  is clearly labelled.

Charlotte ran away from her home in England with the butler, Pad,  whom she loved but who, unfortunately, took sick on the voyage and was greatly weakened by this illness. He does recover somewhat and the two of them are directed to the Yorkshire Plantation, Jamaica under the management of Master John Frye. Pad tries to find relatives but it appears that Willisam is as common a name as Smith in other places. They end up at a village at the edge of town where they are told that they will find shelter. Turns out they are at a plantation and Pad is put to work and Charlotte , because she can read and write is hired to help with the accounts. Very soon Pad is ill again. Charlotte tells him she is pregnant, hoping that will revive him somehow but he dies and she is alone in a difficult situation. When Commodore George Walker’s ship comes into dock, Charlotte imagines “an undiscovered place where a woman can shed the past and seek obscurity – perhaps. ” And so Charlotte goes to Nepisiguit with Commodore Walker.

Charlotte TaylorGeorge Walker really wants Charlotte to return to England: he knows her father and thinks she should return immediately. He is called to Quebec for an ugent meeting concerning the defence of  the area and leave two of his men to see that Charlotte boards the next ship to England. Charlotte, however, has different plans and the ship leaves without her on board.

“There is much to learn. There is no written language, only storytelling and drawings she is unfamiliar with. The legends of the Mi’kmaq are full of superstition and myhology, relying on the past to fathom the future. She’s enchanted with the analogies and the use of hieroglyphics. When George Walker returns he and Charlotte come to terms with her status as a married woman and he does offer to support her and the child in Edinburgh. But ,once again, Charlotte has a better plan. The M’ikmaq women have offered to oversee her pregnancy and teach her  the Indian ways. Replying to George’s offer, “Charlotte stands. “We shall speak tomorrow, George. ” And the commodore bows to her once and leaves the room.

In the morning, before he is awake, Charlotte slips into her boots and treks back to the Indian encampment, where no one pretended to know her mind better than she did herself.”

Charlotte’s first child is born at the encampment and is named Elizabeth. Shortly after Elizabeth’s birth, Charlotte marries Captain John Blake and moves to the Miramichie.

Charlotte’s relationship with the Mi’kmaq people, also referred to as the Salmon People is one that continues throughout the book. In an early discussion with John Blake when she discovers he has not been in the West Indies as he said he would be but has been fighting with the “savages” as he calls them, Charlotte has this to say: “They are not a warmongering people…They are a gentle folk…They share what they have – even with a stranger like me. They give thanks to Mother Earth for everything from the fish in the sea to the rain from the sky. How can these people you call savages be the same ones who sheltered me with such goodness?”

In the Afterword, Sally Armstrong explains why she chose fiction for this account: if you read it, I feel certain you will agree that she has done her ancestor and her family a great service.  On top of that, she has given us a truly exciting and compelling tale.



How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

This is the best of the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache books even though I confess to being partial to Bury Your Dead for its historical connections. I did not want to put this one down and once I finished it I could not get it out of my mind. All good  signs of course.

This is a  roundup of some serious stories that have been touched upon in the last two or more novels in this particular series. It would probably survive quite well as a standalone but I cannot imagine reading it that way. The story of Jean-Guy Beauvoir wh0 ended in dire straits in The Beautiful Mystery is a major sub-plot in this one. And, of course, the rancour between Armand Gamache and Sylvain Francoeur lies behind the Jean-Guy Beauvoir subplot as well as behind the main plot in this novel as it has in previous novels in the series.

In addition this novel has its own separate subplot with strong ties to the village of Three Pines. A friend of Myrna Landers has gone missing when the novel begins and Myrna has called Inspector Gamache to see if he can help. Her friend Constance had been visiting the owner of the bookshop in Three Pines and had left to go back to her home in Montreal to get more clothing etc and come back to spend Christmas. She lived alone in Montreal and seemed to be looking forward to returning to Three Pines where she had started to establish a friendship with Myrna and also Ruth Zardo. When she did not return as expected Myrna began to worry. When Gamache goes to the house he discovers that Myrna’s friend has died an unnatural death and so begins an unravelling of the friend’s life to try to uncover the cause of death and the identity of the murderer.

Almost simultaneously another strange death occurs in the vicinity of the Champlain Bridge and this is a secretary who works for the Ministry of Transport, the mother of three children. The case is not in Inspector Gamache’s area but circumstances result in his being given the case.

Here’s one of Gamache’s thoughts when he looks back on this case: “He’s seen it in others, the consequences of failing to choose companions wisely. One slightly immoral person was a problem. Two together was a catastrophe.  All it took was a fateful meeting. A person who told you your meanest desires, your basest thoughts, weren’t so bad. In fact, he shared them.”

The story goes back and forth from Three Pines to Montreal and some new strong female characters, namely Yvette Nichol and Superintendent Therese Brunel are inspiring additons to the usual cast. Ruth’s duck Rosa provides some humour and Gamache’s shepherd, Henri who appears to develop a crush on Rosa adds to that humour.How the Light Gets In

The hard cover is 404 pages but you will read it like the wind

and want it not to end.


“There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”


I posted on January 19th, 2013 on The Murder Stone by Louise Penny and there are some other titles listed with that post for anyone interested (check the archives for Jan. 2013)

Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre

This is a difficult book to do justice to mainly because it needs to be experienced as the author experienced its events. When Carmen was six years old , she fled from Chile with her parents after the coup by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Her story actually begins five years after that when she and her sister Ale with their mother and stepfather return to South America as members of the resistance. In Vancouver, her parents had divorced. Her stepfather, Bob, who had been in Chile when Salvadore Allende was in power. Bob spent a year in Santiago helping to build houses and then Pinochet coup occurred. Back in Canada, Bob actively worked with Chilean refugees.  Bob and Mami (also named Carmen) were on a list of nationals not allowed back into Pinochet’s Chile. In keeping with this the two girls were told “to tell people she (Mami) was Peruvian…The Chilean blood that ran through our veins could be no more. Our family was moving south because Bob was starting an import-export company. We’d shopped at the mall for the first time ever to put together a middle-class look. ”

Their Mami’s advice continued: “To be in the resistance is a mtter of life and death.  To say the wrong thing to the wrong person is a matter of life and death. And it is impossible to know who the wrong person is. You must assume that everybody is the wrong person. In the resistance, we agree to give our lives to the people, for  better society. I’m asking a loy of you, but you must remember that the sacrifices you’ll have to make are nothing compared with the majority of children in this world. ”

Carmen’s reaction to the above: “I was glad my mother had chosen to take us along, because I wanted to fight for the children, for the people of the world.”

Initially things go along fairly well. The girls sometimes spent days alone in a hotel room. “We had strict orders to keep the noise down an not to open the door to anyone… Late at night, when they thought Ale and I were asleep, I’d spy them sitting cross-legged on their bed, talking in hushed tones while they studied photographs of papers and maps. It looked as though someone had covered a wall with papers and then taken a snapshot of every sheet. They would read the papers using a magnifying glass and then go in the bathroom and close the door. I’d hear the click of a lighter, then the toilet flushing over and over again.

I wasn’t worried during the times they were gone, except about one direction they’d left me with – only me, not my sister. “If twenty-four hours pass and we don’t come back, call this number and say you’re with the Tall One and Raquel. Then hang up. Within an hour someone will knock on the door. Answer it, and then you and Ale go with that person.”

A week later, they left on a bus for Huancayo, a bus “packed to the rafters with families, chickens, piglets and giant sacks of fruit.” Because the bus broke down every so often the trip took 12 hours instead of 6. They went to Cuzco and Machu Picchu and eventually to Copacabana in Bolivia. Then to LaPaz and a new home in Miraflores where the girls went to school.

From La Paz the girls took a train trip by themselves more than 1200 miles in length! They went to Santiago in Chile where their parents could not go. They were accompanied only for the initial short period of the trip. You must read about this for yourself.

As a teenager, Carmen has some typical experiences and some not so typical ones. She goes to the movie Ice Castles three times and she thought Robby Benson was cute but at one showing the movie was interrupted by a woman who went on stage to denounce the dictator Luis Garcia Meza and to call for a minute of silence for a Socialist leader who had been killed after being tortured. Carmen remembers asking her stepfather if the speaker on stage, a woman, will be killed. “I don’t know, Bob said. “But you will remember her Carmencita, because what that woman did is the definition of courage.”

Carmen had four good friends in La Paz and she learned much from each of them. For instance her friend Lorena explained that Aymara Indians had had slaves as their ancestors. “Id had no clue there had been Africa slaves in Bolivia.” Another time she heard a story told by Lorena’s mother which had happened in a remote village to the east where her cousins had taken her to hear the Second Coming of Christ. “What did he say?” asked one of the girls present. “He spoke of freedom and independence. He spoke of the brotherhood of this continent.” And Carmen wrote: “Nobody said aloud that the man in the jungle had been Che Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in 1967. Lorena’s mother had probably seen him when he’d first arrived in 1966.”

As Carmen got older she became more personally involved in the revolutionary/resistance movement and the tension in the narrative increases. Once when her parents go on an emergency mission she is left at home and runs out of food money. She could have gone or help but wasn’t sure her situation was classified as an extreme-case scenario. She “was proud to know that I[she] could survive on recycled tea bags dipped in boiling water, even though my diet had turned me into a chronic trembler.”

“I was eighteen years and seven months old, seated in a Lima cafe, the day I took the resistance oath. My voice low, I leaned in and spoke: I am committed to giving my life to the cause. I will die for the cause if need be. From now on my entire life is dedicated to the cause, which takes precedence over everything else….” The rest is well worth reading and pondering.

In the Acknowledgements Carmen Aguirre writes the following to her mother and her stepfather:

“I would like to thank my mother for teaching me that we were put on this earth to give. I would like to thank her, a fellow writer, for her unconditional support of this book and her blind trust in me. She has allowed me to write my version of the story, and in so doing to reveal her secrets. She has taught me everything I know about passion, courage, strength, conviction and integrity. She is a woman who could have spent her life in comfort but chose to give up her privilege for a greater cause. I had the good fortune of being raised by a revolutionary, and for that I am eternally grateful.”

“I would like the thank Bob Everton, my late stepfather, for urging me to write this book in the months before he died. A true internationalist, he fought for causes locally and globally until his last day on earth. To quote Bertolt Brecht, “There are men who fight for a day and they are good. There are men who fight for a year and they are better. There are men who fight for many years and they are better still. But there are those who fight their whole lives: these are the indispensable ones.” Bob’s exemplary life leads me in my decisions every day.”

Something Fierce

Carmen Aguirre



author photo by Peter Dzenkiw

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

This version is the twentieth anniversary edition and contains an introduction(2005) by Andrew Postman, the author’s son along with a page titled “In 1985…” which reminds the reader of some facts re 1985, the original publication date: population of the U.S. was 240 million and the president was Ronald Reagan; top television shows included Dallas and Dynasty, Cheers, Hill Street Blues; the Mac computer was one year old and People magazine had been on the racks for 10 years; Trivial Pursuit was the top-selling board game. In the Forward the views of George Orwell expressed in his novel 1984 are briefly explained along with those of Aldous Huxley:”What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.””This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”In his introduction to this twentieth anniversary edition, Andrew Postman writes:Amusing Ourselves“In rereading this book to figure out what might be said about it twenty years later, I tried to think the way my father would, since he could no longer. He died in October 2003, at age seventy-two. Channeling him, I realized immediately who offers the best test of whether Amusing Ourselves to Death is still relevant.College kids.

I called several of my father’s former students who are now teachers, and who teach Amusing Ourselves to Death in courses that examine some cross-section of ideas about TV, culture, computing, technology, mass media, communications, politics, journalism, education, religion and language. I asked the teachers what the students thought of the book, particularly its timeliness. ”

These opinions, both positive and negative, are expressed in the book. One student summed it up as follows: “It’s a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century.”

I read the book because I intuitively believed that it had something to offer me. I have seven decades behind me and I write on a lap-top and use a tablet for several different tasks. I enjoy learning new things to do on a computer. I began to use computers in my work before I retired. I use email and Gmail and Google and fully appreciate the internet as a research tool. But I felt I should know more than I do about the history of the technology now being used and its cultural significance. Postman’s book has provided an understanding/overview that was exactly what I was looking for. I believe, now that I have finished it, that it is well worth a second more careful read. Here is an example of the kind of statement that convinced me that I had found the book I was looking for: “…it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture’s intellectual and social preoccupations.” And this too: “For although culture is a creation of speech, it is recreated anew by every medium of communication – from painting to hieroglyphs to the alphabet to television.” “Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.”

I enjoyed the sections on typography and photography finding them extremely helpful in explaining how we got from “there” to “here”.

The ending does not avoid reality (and it was written in 1985 ): “…we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution…All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress.”

Postman does offer what he calls “some remedies for the affliction” but qualifies his offerings by saying that “not everyone believes a cure is needed” and “there probably isn’t any [cure].”

From the back of the book:
“Elegant, incisive, and terrifically readable, it’s a compelling take on our addiction to entertainment.”