Some of you may have noticed in the Oct. 6th issue of Newsweek a review of Carol Shields’ new novel Larry’s Party. If you did notice this review, you probably also noticed that in it Larry is described as a resident of Winnipeg, Ontario.
While this may appear to demonstrate that you can win the Pulitzer Prize, but if you do not live in the continental United States you might as well live on the moon, it is not an error.
Not because Carol Shields gets it wrong. Not because reality harbours a sick need to conform to what Time and Newsweek say it is.
But because recently, and secretly, in honour of Carol Shields and her literary achievements–among them, the Canadian Authors Award for fiction, the National Magazine Award for the short story, the Arthur Ellis Award for mystery writing, the Marian Engel Award for a body of work, the U.S. National Book Critics’ Circle Award for fiction, the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and in France the Prix de Lire–in honour, as I say, of Carol Shields and her achievements, the Writers Union of Canada, the Canadian Authors Association, and the League of Canadian Poets, have joined forces and moved, on flatbed convoys, the entire city of Winnipeg approximately 200 km. to the east.
And I am pleased tonight to be the one to make it official: Winnipeg, if you are looking for it, you will now find just across the Ontario border, within biking distance of its new suburb, Kenora.
Why did we do it?
Did we want to save Winnipeg another white-knuckle appointment with the Red River?
Did we want to balance the evil predations of Mike Harris with some Prairie integrity, while at the same time moving Carol Shields and her fellow Winnipeggers 200 km farther from the equally evil predations of Alberta Report?
Or did we simply–now that the Camper Special train service has been so thoughtlessly discontinued–did we simply want to spare those Winnipeggers with cottages on Lake of the Woods the annoyance of a two-hour drive?
No one knows for sure why we did what we did. As writers we were so astonished to be working together on anything, that no one dared to ask why, lest we sink back once more into ineffectuality and confusion.
But I do think there is also something metaphysically appropriate about this matter of Winnipeg. Because Carol Shields is eminently the celebrator of the human condition as manifest in ordinary life, in the realm of our daily experience. And her refusal to pretend that Larry throws his party in Anytown, Anywhere is testimony to her commitment to that celebration. Wherever it may be, Winnipeg is Winnipeg is Winnipeg. Life in Winnipeg is as ordinary and strange and mysterious as it is anywhere on earth or on the moon. But it takes an artist to understand that if the larger truth is to emerge it must be from the actual particulars of human experience, respectfully and truthfully and compassionately observed. And this is what Carol Shields does in her fiction, and with our lives.
Introduction to a reading by Carol Shields, Timms Centre, Edmonton (October 1997).