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.

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

A Woman Alone (Autobiographical Writings) by Bessie Head

Meet Bessie Head

Bessie Amelia Emery was born in 1937 in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa and was put in foster care immediately. Her mother died in 1943 and she was placed in an Anglican mission orphanage in 1950. She trained and worked as a primary school teacher. She moved to Cape Town in 1960 and married Harold Head in 1963. They had a son, Howard. Bessie was estranged from her husband in 1964 and in that year she left South Africa on an exit permit for Serowe, Botswana where she began teaching again. She was certified mentally ill in 1967 after having sold her first novel to Simon and Schuster (When Rain Clouds Gather). She had recovered by 1070 and published Maru. She was granted Botswanan citizenship in 1979. She died in Serowe of hepatitis on April 17, 1986, aged 49.

Here are some quotes from the Introduction to A Woman Alone written by Craig MacKenzie in 1989:A Woman Alone

“Her early life is a blur of pain and uncertainty. Little is known about her marriage and the reasons for its breakdown. In fact it is only with her arrival in the literary world of the seventies and the relative stability this created that her life begins to take on familiar contours. ”

“Whatever the uncertainties, the task of mapping the life of an author like Bessie Head undoubtedly becomes an investigation into the enigma of human prejudice. For in the process of unravelling the strands of her anguished life story one encounters instances of immense suffering and privation, crippling alienation, and perhaps most of all, personal confusion. It is this personal confusion (no doubt wrought by the bureaucratic callousness of a regime that legislates against people of colour) that is at the centre of Bessie Head’s troubled life.”

“The intention of this book is to allow the author the opportunity to tell the story of her own life, and to offer the reader a collection of illuminating although sometimes contradictory writings that span the entire productive period of her life.”

All sections of this collection are interesting but I personally found those about writing of greater interest although those concerning a political projection were equally intriguing.

Here is something from “Some notes on novel writing”:

“Twenty-seven years of my life was lived in South Africa but I have been unable to record this expereince in any direct way, as a writer. A very disturbing problem is that we find ourselves born into a situation where people are separated  into sharp racial groups. All the people tend to think only in those groups in which they are and one is irked by the artificial barriers. It is as though, with all those divisions and signs, you end up with no people at all. The environment completely defeated me, as a writer. I just want people to be people, so I had no way of welding all the people together into a cohesive whole.

I have attempted to solve my problem by at least writing in an environment where all the people are welded together by an ancient order. Life in Botswana cannot be compared to life in South Africa because here people live very secure lives, in a kind of social order shaped from centuries past by the ancestors of the tribe. I have tended to derive a feeling of security from this, so I could not be considered as a South African writer in exile, but as one who has put down roots., And yet, certain strength in me, certain themes I am likely to write about, have been mainly shaped by my South African experience.”

Other pieces on writing include “Social and political pressures that shape writing in Southern Africa”, “A Note on Rain Clouds”, “Some Happy Memories of Iowa” and “Writing Out of Southern Africa. In the latter piece, Bessie outlines her major themes or as she puts it “the major shaping influences in my life”. These include “A bit of Christianity”, “A bit of Pan-Africanism”, “The inspiration of Bertolt Brecht”, “Experiments with the new” and “A reverence for people”. “These,” she states in closing this piece “are the themes that have preoccupied me a s a writer.”

The last piece in the story is entitled “Epilogue: an African Story” and, for me certainly, is a beautiful statement of Bessie’s theme, ” a reverence for people.”

I suspect some readers would use the word “dated” as well as the word “naive”about some of Bessie Head’s writing but they would be wrong in my humble opinion. In 1985 she wrote

“When people are holy to each other, war will end, human suffering will end.”

and “I see this achievement as not the effort of a single man but a collaboration of many great minds in order that an integrity be established in the affairs of men. Only then can the resources of the earth be cared for and shared in an equitable way among all mankind.”

As long ago as 1972, Bessie Head wrote: “Thought patterns change rapidly from one generation to another. We reformed the language of our parents because once the white man in South Africa started putting up notices , ‘For whites only’, he also dispensed with  normal human decencies – like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I”m sorry’ -while black people retained theirs as they have no benches to defend. It is impossible to translate a scene like this into human language. I once sat down on a bench at Cape Town railway station where the notices ‘Whites Only’ was obscured. A few moments later a white man approached and shouted: ‘Get off!’ It never occurred to him that he was achieving the opposite of his dreams of superiority and had become a living object of contempt, that human beings, when they are human, dare not conduct themselves in such ways.”

Reading Bessie Head’s work will make you think hard about what we have or have not accomplished since her death in 1986.

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein

The author of this memoir was 93 when he began to write it which was after the death of his wife Ruby. He was born in 1910. The memoir has a sequel titled The Dream. The setting is an English mill town in Lancashire: a small town and a street with an “invisible wall” dividing Jewish families on one side from Christian families on the other. “Actually,” Harry writes, what we had here was a miniature ghetto…and though the distance from one side to the other…was only a few yards…the distance socially could have been miles and miles.” (Prologue)As a memoir, this is particularly powerful and genuine. The working conditions/climate in the tailoring shops where Harry’s father worked and also his sister Lily,the social restrictions and barriers, the parents’ struggle to raise a family and keep a home,are very clearly presented and the reader easily enters into these various aspects of Harry’s family life. He inspires strong empathy.Invisible Wall

The love story involves Harry’s sister Lily who falls in love with a Christian boy. Harry is drawn into their story when he discovers the romance.
The war changes things on the street. Harry describes the changes: “The war, it seemed, had almost completely destroyed the invisible wall that had separated us, bringing the two sides together. Many young man on the street are called up including Lily’s young man Arthur. After the war, things revert back to old patterns. Arthur and Lily see each other secretly and Harry knows this. Eventually the mother finds out and the parents follow Jewish customs and consider their daughter to be dead. As Harry describes it: “And this time too the Christians may have been just as shocked and as fearful for their own daughters and sons.”
Harry and the family left England in 1922 although as he says “I never really left the street. It was always there in my mind through the years that followed.” Forty years later he did return just in time to see the old buildings before they were demolished and he finds one of the people he knew when he lived there.
A memoir that is well worth a read: told with patience, humility and the uncluttered viewpoint of one who remembers with the clarity and non-judgmental vision of a child which is what Harry was during his time there.